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Cancer and motherhood: The impossible choices we are forced to make

For months my fatigue and other vague symptoms were chalked up to being postpartum. “What new mother isn’t tired?” the doctor joked.
On the beach with my daughters.
On the beach with my daughters.Courtesy Elyse Chambers

“I couldn’t possibly be pregnant again, right?” My husband, Andrew, and I were on our way to a harvest lunch, dropping our two young daughters off at my mother’s. As I slipped a shirt over my head I felt a familiar fullness in my boobs. 

“Don’t joke about that!” he said, eyes growing wide. Then he paused. “You don’t really think … ”

I squeezed his arm. My period had been erratic since the chemo, those red x’s on the calendar clustered together and then missing for months at a time. “Probably just getting my period.”

Lunch was on a hillside striped with grapevines. Andrew is a winemaker and we laughed and clinked glasses and made small talk with strangers and club members. It had been eighteen months since that first clear scan. Eighteen months of slowly trusting that this time the treatment worked. When I could no longer smile at partygoers, I kissed Andrew goodbye and hurried down the hill, stopping at the pharmacy for a pregnancy test.

At home, I pee and then wait three eternal minutes. The test has a digital window and the word pregnant floats to the surface like a Magic Eight Ball.

I text a picture to Andrew.


I was first diagnosed with cancer when our oldest daughter was 10 months old. For months my fatigue and other vague symptoms were chalked up to being postpartum. Life as a new mother. “What new mother isn’t tired?” the doctor had joked. But our baby slept like a dog, often ten or eleven hour stretches at a time.

Getting chemo on the maternity ward, before I lost my hair.
Getting chemo on the maternity ward, before I lost my hair.Courtesy Elyse Chambers

Told I was anemic, I received an iron infusion. That should perk you up, the doctor had said. But then came the night sweats and swollen lymph nodes and he diagnosed me on the spot. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Stage 4. Six rounds of chemotherapy. A clear scan. Months pass. A celebratory trip to Cabo San Lucas where we ate fish tacos and drank margaritas in the infinity pool. 

Then I became pregnant with our second daughter. We wanted this baby so badly and there was nothing to worry about because I was in remission. 

It started as a pain in my left elbow. Then, in the shower one night, I felt a lump in my left bicep. The cancer multiplied and divided at the same rate as the embryo. The lump was a cherry tomato, then a hard-boiled egg, while the embryo grew as well. There were sonograms of the baby curled tight or waving a watery hand. There were MRIs of the cancer, which spread to the bone in my knee. It is too aggressive, the doctor said. A round of chemotherapy early in my third trimester was recommended. I lost my hair. All of my beautiful, long blond hair. When I was induced six weeks later most of it had fallen out. By the time we brought her home from the NICU I had shaved the rest. 

There was more chemo. Radiation. The grim news that my body wasn’t responding and that options were dwindling.  I think the doctor meant to say that hope was dwindling but I’d grown on him over the years — I could see how upset he was. 

In the hospital during the clinical trial that saved my life.
In the hospital during the clinical trial that saved my life.Courtesy Elyse Chambers

I entered into a clinical trial when our oldest daughter was 2 and our infant was 5 months old. The treatment, a therapy that would alter my genes but came with many unknowns, saved my life. Then we moved on.


Now I am in our bathroom, waiting for Andrew to come home, holding the pregnancy test with the word that I don’t want to see on the digital screen. 


My socks don’t match. That’s all I can think as I place my feet in the metal stirrups, the paper crinkling as I lean back. Maybe the pregnancy isn’t viable, the OB had said. But then she angles the wand inside me and there on the screen is this jellybean of life. A black and white smudge with a “beautiful heartbeat.” Six weeks, six days.                                                   

I message the head of the clinical trial I’m on and get a tentative congratulations. But he also says, “No, I haven’t heard of any other patients on the trial who go on to have healthy pregnancies and healthy children, but that’s not to say it isn’t possible.” More Magic Eight Ball answers. Reply hazy, try again. Cannot predict now. Outlook not so good.      


I scrape a knife over the thin skins of pearl onions. I add a slick of olive oil to the pot before twisting the cork out of the merlot that we’ll never drink. It’s 3 p.m. on a Wednesday and Andrew has dropped the girls at home, needing to run back to the winery. They shout and play and dance around me as I press the phone into my ear. Yes, I say to the receptionist at the clinic, I am seven weeks and two days as of today.

It is too hot for polenta and beef bourguignon, but I am hungry for comfort. It has been five days since the pregnancy test. Five days of vague information about the viability of a pregnancy from my oncologist, a man with five healthy kids and a healthy wife who can’t possibly understand.

“Scientifically, we don’t really know,” he says. “Maybe this is good news?”                                  

How can this be good news? The last time I got pregnant the cancer came back so aggressively, I say. Will that happen again? Or am I cured? He doesn’t know. The polenta bubbles angrily on the stove.  Over dinner the wine sits untouched, Andrew takes my hand, and we decide.


The sting of the needle surprises me. My bare feet dangling near the doctor’s head, I am self-conscious. I should have clipped my nails. Put on some polish.

“Go ahead and cry,” the doctor booms from between my legs.

It’s hard to cry in a mask.

Before the procedure, I had asked Andrew to wait outside, unable to watch his grief alongside mine. He slides the door open as I’m pulling my jeans back on, the large pad wedged in my too tight underwear.             

“That was unbelievably painful,” I say. We hold each other beneath the fluorescent lights.                  

My mom takes the girls for ice cream. A friend orders pizza and lets them play mermaids and witches and pirates until bath time. I take an anti-anxiety pill and sleep.    


The night before the abortion Andrew had said, “You are the most important thing in my life, in our lives, and we can’t lose you. I’m not risking you. If we had all of the health and all of the money, we’d have ten babies. We make beautiful babies.”

My eyes filled and we lay like that, looking at each other. I whispered back, “All of the health and all of the money.”

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