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Cancer, Baby: Children and the Body After Cancer

By on October 27th, 2011 Categories: The Breast Cancer Journey

From the time I was a teenager, I had always been rather proud of my breasts, fairly perky 36Cs. I wasn’t a fan of the rest of my body, wishing endlessly that I were taller, willowier, and had a less poochy tummy. But the boobs, I liked.

I still remember a time in college when I was hanging out with some housemates in my bathrobe, weeping over some romantic crisis or other. (There were lots.) In the midst of my lamentations, one of my friends, a guy, said, “Not to interrupt or anything, but damn, Gina, you are stacked!” Oddly enough, that made me feel better.

And then my breasts, the one part of my body I’d always been at peace with, decided to declare war on me. Or at least the right one did. In 2004, I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, stage IIB, with lymph node involvement, and went through the dark merry-go-round of treatments: neoadjuvant chemotherapy (AC-T), a lumpectomy and excision of nine lymph nodes, and 33 rounds of radiation, followed a bit later by a year of Herceptin.

After all of that, my battered chest didn’t look so cute or perky. I still had both breasts, true, but Cancer Boob was noticeably smaller than the other, and there were those scars around the nipple and in my armpit. My hair eventually grew back, of course, but looking in the mirror naked was not something I looked forward to—despite how often my husband told me how sexy I was.

But how I looked in the mirror wasn’t something I had time to think about much at that point. At 38, I was much more focused on something else: having children. Despite the fact that the American Society for Clinical Oncology advises its members to discuss cancer’s impact on fertility with all of their patients of reproductive age, surveys show many oncologists still don’t. I was lucky—mine did offer my husband and me the option to freeze embryos before treatment. After much angst, we eventually elected not to—I just couldn’t handle more medications, more surgery, more injections, more tests.

So after the Cancer Year came the Adoption Year. We figured that I would not be able to get pregnant at 38, after aggressive chemo, so we intensely researched adoption and then in February 2006, brought home our beautiful newborn daughter Annika, entrusted to us by her wonderful birthmom Kim, who’s still a big part of our lives.

A year and a half later, we discovered I could still get pregnant. And when I was about six months along with my son, Adrian, who’s now three, I suddenly took a sharp look at my body again. That’s because one morning, when I looked in the mirror, I realized that my left breast wasn’t just a little bit bigger than Cancer Boob—it was a whole lot bigger. Like, Three Mile Island bigger. After letting out a giant shriek, I ran to the computer, did some research, and found out that irradiated breasts tend not to lactate. If I was going to breastfeed—and I wanted to—Lefty would stay rather massively larger than Righty for as long as I did.

But something strange happened.

I didn’t care.

Once I got over the initial shock, I didn’t really mind that I had a cantaloupe on one side of my chest and a tennis ball on the other. First of all, damn, I was pregnant! I had pretty much given up on the prospect, but my fierce little ovaries had said a big “In your face!” to cancer. The body that had endured eight rounds of systemic poison and a whole lot of radiation was now sheltering a growing baby.

And then, once my son was born (via a very unwanted but very necessary C-section, which added yet another scar to my body) and placed on my chest to nurse—which he did immediately and avidly—the fact that I could nourish my child from my own body, and instantly turn his tears to contented sighs, pretty much completely erased any concerns about how I might look in a swimsuit.

I never bothered to stick cutlets in my bra. I’ve even been known to go out to schmancy events wearing a plunging neckline that makes it necessary to occasionally retuck one boob, but not the other. Do people look? Maybe. I don’t care. If they ask—and sometimes they do—I’ll tell them, without a single blush.

When Adrian was about four months old, we were in the checkout line at Target. The cashier asked me, “Do you breastfeed?” After blinking in surprise that she’d ask such a personal question, I responded “Yes.” She said, “I thought so. You’re a little … engorged on that side.” I burst out laughing.

Today, I have three kids—our youngest, Katia, was born six weeks after I turned 43. My body looks like—well, it looks like the body of a 43-year-old woman who’s had a lumpectomy, a lymph node dissection, several biopsies, a C-section, and a VBAC, and nursed babies for going on four years now.

And I love it. I look in the mirror and I love it. I see the left breast that nourished two children, and the right breast that I’ve forgiven for letting its cells mutate. I see the chest that three kids lay their heads on while we read bedtime stories. I see the arms that have gotten stronger not in the gym that I rarely get to, but from carrying them. I see the stretch marks bearing witness to where two of them made renovations to the temporary home they lived in while inside me. I see the wrinkles (more and more of them every day) that show how often they all make me laugh. (And yes, the gray hairs that demonstrate how often they stress me out.)

I see a body that has triumphed. I see a body that has declared victory over cancer. I see an incredibly lucky woman who loves her life and loves the body she lives it in.

I owe that gift to my children and to the good fortune I’ve had in being able to have them. Having children after cancer really did give me the ability to love my body again. It also gave me the ability to reconcile myself to my cancer in the first place.

I’m not one of those people who says “Cancer is a gift.” If cancer’s a gift, where can I return it and exchange it for a nice pair of Manolos? But thanks to my kids, I recognize that, had I not had cancer, I would not have the life I have today. I might have had kids sooner—but they would be different kids, and I can’t imagine life without these three amazing little people. I spend endless hours loving and taking care of them, and in return, they have transformed me. To paraphrase Wicked, I think I have been changed for the better—and I know I have been changed for good.

Gina Shaw is a health, medicine, and science writer who lives in Montclair, New Jersey with her endlessly patient husband and amazing three kids. She is the author of Having Children After Cancer, the first and only guide for cancer survivors to their options for becoming parents after having had cancer. Published by Ten Speed Press, it's available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other leading booksellers.

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