In many cases, cancer treatment affects fertility. Here at Shine we know that (a) health care practitioners don’t always deal with fertility and cancer issues very well and (b) questions about fertility can be one of the toughest things to deal with after a diagnosis. Shine’s 2012 survey of young adults with cancer found that a whopping 50% of people didn’t feel that they’d been adequately supported to preserve their fertility prior to starting treatment.
In our latest blog, Rhian Jenkins (who also coordinates Shine’s Cardiff network) shares her story of diagnosis with ovarian cancer at 25, and how questions about her fertility have impacted upon her.
If you’d like to chat to others about your experiences, why not request to join Shine’s private Facebook group? We’ve got 400 men and women chatting cancer there – we’d love to see you.
Last week I discovered that I have gained five unwanted, un-shiftable pounds. As I stood in the tiny room at my GP’s surgery, my toes gripping the scales, I hastily added two inches when the nurse asked ‘height?’ in the hope of achieving a more desirable BMI.
The bad news: The nurse didn’t believe me and instantly had me standing flat-footed against her height chart while I mumbled something about wearing platforms last time I was measured.
The good news: Not even the most furrowed-browed of nurses tells the only twentysomething in menopause clinic to eat less cake.
I was 25 when I was diagnosed with germ cell ovarian cancer. At first, I was thought to have a cyst and, reassured by everyone’s affirmations over my general health and my age, I set off for an ultrasound expecting to hear what statistics would have me believe. The walls in the waiting room were plastered with posters on nursing and the chairs were filled with expectant mothers. As I fleetingly fretted over losing my fertility to a benign condition, I was ill prepared to be plunged into a world of tumours and treatment decisions.
The nature of my cancer and treatment left little chance or time for debate regarding fertility preservation. I began chemotherapy a week after diagnosis in the vain hope that my remaining ovary would jump back to attention once treatment ended. The almost poetic irony that the very ‘things’ that were meant to be a source of new life were on a mission to kill me was not lost on me – I tried desperately to see the funny side.
At the beginning of treatment, when your mind is preoccupied, it can be difficult to discern the importance of losing your fertility. At that point, it’s just another potential ingredient in a monstrous, scary, side-effect sandwich. Every time I tried to brush aside conversations about the possibility of infertility and claim I wasn’t that bothered, my consultant reminded me that ‘our aim is that one day it WILL matter to you.’ It seemed like something that was so far away, so hypothetical, and so disconnected from anything I was going through that it seemed an absurd thing to worry about. It was only when the twelve month post-chemo bell rang and I gained the official title of ‘menopausal’ that I began to realise and, dare I say, resent how different my life looked because of cancer. I sat once again in the same old waiting room, this time to collect my prescription for hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
Throughout treatment I vowed that if I couldn’t always be positive, keep my chin up, or stay true to any of the other clichés often demanded of cancer patients that I would, at the very least, remain compassionate towards others. I didn’t want my own cancer-filled universe to consume me. I didn’t want to become bitter or maudlin and I tried hard to avoid asking ‘why me?’ I placed a great deal of importance on not feeling sorry for myself and got on with what had to be done. Why then, a year after the hardest part of it all, was I feeling so cheated? I felt like a fraud every time I clicked ‘like’ on the scan pictures of acquaintances that appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.
Speaking about fertility is difficult and I guess it’s hard to grasp what it’s like unless you have been through the rigmarole of cancer treatment and losing your fertility. When I try to engage with friends who haven’t experienced cancer they usually look perplexed and cut any potential conversation short with an exclamation of ‘but that’s the least of our worries, right!’. Being fortunate enough to have the luxury of an infertility ‘issue’ combined with the fact that you shouldn’t be menopausal in you twenties is confusing. The turmoil and guilt I feel every time I acknowledge that maybe I’m not OK with the hand I’ve dealt can be hard to deal with.
It’s now two years on from my diagnosis and, like my scars, the issue of fertility is something that serves as a constant reminder of my disease. When I catch myself daydreaming about a future it is usually the future that I thought I would have. In my pre-cancer naiveté I never expected fertility to be a hurdle I would have to overcome. It was certainly never something I thought I would have to ‘work at.’ Instead, I am learning to be comfortable with the uncertainty the future I have been afforded while also learning to be excited, instead of daunted, by the possibilities of adoption, surrogacy or even egg donation/IVF.
Rhian lives in Cardiff and coordinates our Cardiff network. She’s currently getting ready to go on Shine’s 2015 Great Escape!