Contemplating childlessness and cancer

I write this at the end of World Childless week 2020. 

What I am about to say may prove a little controversial. I can only speak from my own experience, and it is not my intention to belittle anyone’s experience of cancer. These observations are from my own experience of being a childless woman who then happened to get breast cancer. Unlike many others, my cancer did not cause my childlessness. Did my childlessness cause my cancer? I don’t know, but stress and grief are part of the aetiology, I am sure. 

Before I knew that I was unable to have children, I couldn’t even contemplate the idea. Eight years ago my therapist asked me what I would do if the IVF failed and I was never able to have children. I kept the feeling of utter bleakness at bay by steeling myself and vehemently replying “That can’t happen. It’s not possible. I can’t not have children”. There was no way I could even countenance the possibility. When you are going through IVF you have to believe it’s going to work. Why would you do it otherwise? When I did IVF it was taboo. Not something you talked about. I was quite open about it but I received nothing like the same degree of understanding and concern which having cancer brought me. Somehow having cancer makes you a worthy person, deserving of special treatment, care and compassion. Friends, family, colleagues and even strangers were so kind to me when they heard I had cancer. I felt so validated, such a sense of belonging. 

When you have cancer everyone asks how you are. People cut you some slack when you’re not firing on all four cylinders. It’s ok to be feeling sad or apprehensive. Childlessness is not something you feel able to share without inviting judgement, pity or derision. That or just a complete inability to fathom why it’s even an issue. Comments like “have some of mine!”, “at least you can travel!”, “you still have your health” or “it must be nice to get so much sleep”, sting. And that’s just other people! The way you beat yourself up is far worse. If only I’d not been so picky about finding the right man until it was too late; it must be because I’m not fit to be a mother; I can’t have wanted it enough or tried hard enough. I never thought that way about my cancer. It was just bloody bad luck and I could deal with it. I didn’t need to soul search to figure out why I had cancer or what I had done to cause it.

When you apply to adopt, the local authority treat you with suspicion. You feel like a criminal until proven otherwise. And when adoption fails, or you realise that you’re not strong enough to give yourself heart and soul, body, mind and strength to someone else’s child, you feel like you’re not good enough. What people don’t realise is that adoption is nothing like having your own child. It’s not just a case of picking a baby off the shelf. I wasn’t prepared for this when I embarked on the adoption process. I thought it would be a magic bullet to build my own family and to fill that enormous hole that was inside me. I was naive. It wasn’t until we eventually realised that we couldn’t adopt, that I finally released the stranglehold under which I had kept my emotions, to fully experience my grief.

Until I joined gateway women, a community of childless women, I had no idea that what I was feeling was grief. We call it disenfranchised grief. Nobody died. There is nothing tangible to hold onto. We have no happy memories to anchor us. Just a great big gaping hole left by what never was, is not and never will be. I have been grieving my children who never were for over seven years now, though I only really allowed myself to acknowledge that grief five years ago when our adoption journey came to an end. At first I thought I wouldn’t survive. The emotional pain was indescribable. All my empty tomorrows stretching in front of me for ever and ever. But you do survive, because you have to. With the help of Gateway Women I have learned to grow around my grief, to celebrate what I have rather than dwelling on what I don’t have. At the same time I still honour my grief and that visceral longing to touch my children, which will always be with me.

I’ve had words with God over both my childlessness and my cancer. It sounds weird, but I don’t really hold the fact that I had cancer against Him. It was more a case of, “Oh, thanks Lord, you have a really sick sense of humour – help me to get through this!”  With the childlessness it has been a completely different kettle of fish. “Why do you hate me?! Why have you forsaken me?” and try as I might I couldn’t forgive Him for it. With cancer there is resolution. Even when I was in Covid-19 limbo with no idea when I would get my mastectomy, I knew that it would happen sooner or later. With childlessness there is no resolution. There is no cure.

There is no cure but there is life after accepting that you will never be a mother or a grandmother. You will be forever excluded from that club but you can still LIVE. When I was trying to disentangle my childless grief from my anger over having cancer, my friend and meditation guide, Merryn, showed me that there are some aspects of my life now which wouldn’t have been possible had I had children. It’s not the path I would have chosen, were I given the choice, but it is the path I am on and it is a good one. You can see from my posts on creating joy and wild swimming that I have found things which make my heart sing and my skin zing. 

I find it almost impossible not to play the comparison game. I consider my experience of cancer to have been a walk in the park compared to that of many others. I didn’t have to endure chemo or radiotherapy, nor did I suffer the indignity caused by many other types of cancer. As my mother-in-law said, you can do without a breast! I might think differently if I’d been wiped out and throwing my guts up from chemo, or had to get used to a colostomy bag, or been forced to endure paroxysms of excruciating pain. I can only speak from my own experience. Of course, secondary cancer is another thing entirely. I can’t even imagine how I would come to terms with it if I got secondaries. I have huge admiration for those who remain positive against all odds. 

Thank you, my fellow people who have had cancer, and thank you my friends and family, whether you are childless or blessed with children, for being here. Thank you for reading. Thank you for listening. Thank you for just being.

Has cancer changed you?

My husband asked me this question before we turned the light off last night. I asked what prompted it and he said he wasn’t sure. Maybe it was because I am about to go back to work and he felt the need to punctuate this particular paragraph in our life. It was a relief to hear that he didn’t think I’d changed. At least, not for the worse! I’m still fundamentally me. But my response was yes, cancer has changed me. How could it not?

Time may change me. But I can’t trace time.
Can’t resist a reference to Bowie…he died of liver cancer

It is human nature to try to make sense of bad things when they happen to us. Resilience training aims to minimise the risk of PTSD by teaching soldiers to make sense of the traumatic events which they experience. If we can write our experiences into our life’s narrative and make a coherent story we feel much more at home in our own skin. During the seemingly interminable wait for surgery my friend Merryn helped me to make some sense of what I was going through with guided meditations. During one of these I encountered a tiny, delicate, brightly coloured flower growing in a wood, which would have been easily trampled underfoot had it not been for its striking appearance, which made people step over or around it. That flower was me. Before I was forced to slow down by my cancer diagnosis I would not even have noticed the flower as I powered past on my hike. I’d probably have stepped on it.

I’ve always had a tendency to be hard on myself. I would never berate my patients if they didn’t live up to their own standards or if they didn’t excel all the time in everything they did. I don’t think this tendency will ever leave me entirely, but being forced to go off sick from work and facing some of my demons has allowed me to forgive myself for not being perfect. I am now practicing being kind to myself when I feel like I don’t measure up. I am beginning to take myself less seriously. We all make mistakes and none of us are indispensable. Neither of these are bad things. If we can remember them then we no longer need to cling for dear life to our self esteem.

I have found joy in art, wild swimming, yoga, observing nature and blogging! I would never have become a blogger had it not been for breast cancer.

I still don’t think there is a reason, as such, for why I got breast cancer. Nor do I believe there is a reason why I was infertile when I so desperately wanted a family. Sometimes shit just happens. It’s how you deal with the shit that matters. I hate it when people say that everything happens for a reason – so, I just wasn’t meant to have children, is that it? No. I’ve done my fair share of railing against God, screaming at the top of my lungs “Why do you hate me??!” God doesn’t hate me, but I won’t understand his reasons, at least not in this life. Thomas Chisholm wrote “Great is thy faithfulness, oh God my father, there is no shadow of turning with thee, thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not…morning by morning new mercies I see, all I have needed thy hand has provided…” And that’s the funny thing. I have always somehow had the strength to cope with the shitstorm that life throws at me. It may not feel like it at the time, but our experiences mould us into who we are and what we are becoming.

I like to think that this experience has helped me to be less overcome by setbacks. I have become slower and calmer and have less of a tendency to panic if I can’t find the solution immediately. Long may this last!

Many things about me haven’t changed. I was terrified when I heard that I would need major surgery that my body would be horribly disfigured and that I would lose my athletic figure. My six pack isn’t what it was, but I still cut it in lycra! I even got whistled at on my run today. I am slowing getting my fitness back and see no reason why I shouldn’t get back to full fitness. I still retain my insatiable intellectual curiosity (I now know an awful lot about breast cancer!) and my tendency to give my whole self to things with gay abandon. So thank you cancer, you have made me more myself, not less.

Back in the river Kent today!