Like so many young breast cancer survivors, Beth Gainer faced the harsh reality of infertility after finishing her cancer treatments. To make matters worse, she experienced a divorce, leaving her single with seemingly no chance of motherhood. However, Beth chose to take matters into her own hands and pursue an an international adoption after cancer, as a single woman. For women facing infertility after cancer treatments, Beth’s story provides inspiration and hope. To read more about Beth Gainer, check out the “About the Author” section at the bottom of this article.
Like many people, I had always dreamed of having children. That dream came to a screeching halt when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at a relatively young age.
During diagnosis, I was understandably most concerned about mortality. But I had the wherewithal to ask my oncologist if I could have a child after radiation and chemotherapy were completed. He reassured me that only 1 percent of people with my treatment regimen were rendered infertile as a result of treatment.
The odds of having a baby post-treatment were in my favor.
Until I found out I was in that 1 percent whose treatment launched them into early menopause.
Grateful to be alive, but…
I was so grateful to be alive, but when my gynecologist confirmed I was now infertile, it was a gut punch. Anguished, I grieved for my lost fertility because I wanted a child more than anything. Now my dream of motherhood seemed to be just that: an elusive dream.
For me, becoming a mom after cancer was an impossibility. Life was cruel indeed, and I fell into a deep depression.
Reframing the dream of motherhood
Until I confided to an acquaintance about my infertility. She told me she adopted a baby a few years ago and recommended her agency.
Adoption. The word gave me hope that I could perhaps still build a family — even after cancer. Could I be so lucky to adopt a child?
I was scared as I completed the application to adopt a child. I started feeling despair immediately after mailing the application. The way I saw it, I had three strikes against me.
- I was recently divorced — strike one.
- I was now single — strike two.
- Worst of all — I had had cancer — strike three.
What agency would believe I was a good fit as a mother? What agency would let me actually pursue an adoption after cancer?
Luckily for me, the recommended agency did.
Choosing to cross oceans for my baby
My social worker suggested I adopt a baby from China, as, at that time, the wait time for a baby was only a year.
I’m not exactly a world traveler. In fact, I’d never been to another country outside of the US and was, frankly, scared to go out of my comfort zone to China. In my mind, I fully dismissed this as a possibility — even though I told my social worker that I would sleep on it.
But when I awoke the next morning, I just knew. I would go to China for my baby. I had a new sense of purpose and, literally overnight, overcame my fear of travelling to a foreign country so incredibly far away. That day, I enthusiastically told my social worker I was committing to international adoption.
I wish I could say the road to adoption was pleasant, but it was rather arduous.
China had a quota of how many single women could adopt a child, so my agency had to put me on a special list that would make my wait a little longer. My agency and social worker didn’t seem fazed by my cancer history. However, my agency and the Chinese government understandably needed a letter from my oncologist stating I was healthy.
This last administrative step seemed like a huge hurdle to me. How could my oncologist guarantee in writing that I was healthy and would stay healthy? Shakily, I asked him if he would write the letter attesting to my current good health. My oncologist is an understanding human being who believes his patients need to live — and this means more than just being alive. He knows that truly living involves more than being free of cancer. Wanting the adoption to take place as much as I did, he wrote a glowing letter as proof of good health. My social service agency and the Chinese government were satisfied.
My completed dossier was on its way to China.
An adoption delay and a health scare
Then the unexpected happened. Chinese adoptions had slowed down to a trickle. Although it was initially supposed to take only one year to become a mother, it would take three years. I was disappointed, as were the people in my travel group, who were also eagerly awaiting their babies.
For me, though, the lengthy wait for a child turned out to be a blessing in disguise. While my dossier sat on Chinese bureaucrats’ desks, I had a medical scare: an MRI revealed something in the breast that had had cancer years earlier.
I felt my voice crack, as I asked my oncologist if I should pull out of the adoption process. He said, “Let’s see what it is before we make any decisions.”
Luckily, the biopsy revealed that “the growth” was just scar tissue from a previous surgery. I would go on with the adoption. But I decided that — with extremely dense breasts, a history of false alarms, and having had breast cancer — I needed to take preventive measures to maximize my odds of survival. I had to live — not just for me but for my future child.
So I opted for a preventive bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. The recovery process from this 10-hour brutal surgery is quite long. As we contemplated the surgery I needed and wanted, my oncologist and I were working together, guesstimating when the adoption would take place. We took advantage of China’s adoption slowdown. I had my surgery and took a full year to recover from it, with time to spare.
With my spare time as I healed from surgery, I studied Mandarin intensely so that I would be able to communicate to my baby with familiar sounds, as well as communicate to the Chinese people in their language. I kept myself busy with friends and hobbies so the long wait ahead would be tolerable.
Adoption after cancer becomes reality
Finally, on July 19, in 2009, a beautiful 13-month-old baby girl was placed in my arms. As she lay sleeping in the hotel room’s crib, I studied her. Like so many new parents, I marveled at her cute hands and toes, and I took in her facial features. Getting to know each other the first few days was a challenge; my daughter was scared of me, and I was petrified and ecstatic at the same time.
My daughter is now a lively, fun, loving 10-year-old, and I’m truly blessed to call her my child. I’m grateful each day for her, and I wouldn’t trade motherhood for anything. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I felt the door to having a baby start closing. When I was diagnosed as infertile, the door to my dream seemed to shut permanently.
Little did I know when I was diagnosed with cancer, followed by a diagnosis of infertility, that my dream of motherhood was still within reach.
For me, the path to becoming a mom after cancer was fraught with harrowing obstacles. But with tenacity, perseverance, determination, and lots of luck, I was able to realize my dream of building a family after cancer through adoption.
About the Author
Beth L. Gainer blogs at www.bethgainer.com and has published numerous articles on her breast cancer experience and other topics. She published an essay in the anthology Voices of Breast Cancer by LaChance Publishing. Her book Calling the Shots in Your Medical Care is designed to help patients navigate through the healthcare system and advocate for themselves. Gainer has been featured in various media venues, including Huffington Post Live. She teaches writing at College of DuPage in the Chicago area. She can be reached at Twitter at @Bethlgainer.
If you are seeking more information about preserving your fertility before cancer treatments begin, you may want to read “Fertility and Breast Cancer” by Marie Ennis O’Connor. If you need to talk to your kids about your breast surgeries, you may be interested in Heather’s account of how she explained her BRCA mutation and mastectomy to her kids. Most of all, we hope you feel supported by I’m Taking Charge with the information to make informed decisions. Don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter below so you never miss an article!