MOTHERHOOD AFTER BREAST CANCER

HEALTH, MOTHERHOOD

At the age of just 31 Annabel Chown was told she had breast cancer. In this honest and inspiring list, she explains how this diagnosis went on to affect all aspects of her life, including relationships, fertility issues, her decision around a double mastectomy and what this would mean if she had a baby. 

But what really stands out is how Annabel believes she is a different mother because of cancer and how it has given her an appreciation for all that life has to offer. As she says, who knows what the future holds?

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  • I was thirty-one, single and working crazy hours as an architect in London when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

  • I found the lump by chance, in the early hours of a Sunday morning, getting undressed after a party at a bar in Soho; one of those parties where I hoped I might meet someone.

  • I freaked.

  • What if I never have the chance to fall in love again? was one of my first thoughts.

  • It’s bound to be benign, friends and family reassured me. Nine out of ten lumps are, especially at your age.

  • An ultrasound indicated it was. A needle biopsy showed some ‘unusual’ cells, but I was told they definitely weren’t cancerous.

  • The breast surgeon decided to remove the lump anyway. Just as a precaution. My surgery was booked for the day after I returned from a long weekend in New York.

  • As I soaked up Manhattan’s spring sunshine, galleries and bars, cancer wasn’t even on my mind.

  • Back in London, I came to from the anaesthetic to be told that, much to everyone’s surprise, the lump was cancer. ‘Nasty little bugger’ was how the surgeon described it.

  • I didn’t need a mastectomy, thank goodness.

  • But I did need chemotherapy and radiotherapy. In one breath, a male oncologist breezily informed me that my hair would probably fall out from chemo, and it might well make me infertile.

  • I found a different oncologist. Her prescription was the same, but her attitude wasn’t. She said the odds were chemo wouldn’t affect my fertility as I was so young. And there were things I could consider to help safeguard it.

  • When she told me she was fully expecting me to come back in a few years with a photo to put in her ‘baby book’, tears filled my eyes.

  • I discussed fertility-preserving options with a gynaecologist. Creating embryos was the most viable one. Except I didn’t have a partner, and didn’t want to use donor sperm.

  • So I decided to leave things to chance.

  • During my long months of cancer treatment, I attended wedding after wedding. I’d show up in my wig, full of joy for my lovely friends. Yet wonder if it would ever happen to me.

  • Hairless, with a 10cm raw scar slashed across my left breast, I felt like damaged goods. Would I ever be desirable again?

  • In time, my hair grew back, my scar faded, as did, slowly, the sense that my life had been blighted by cancer.

  • I made good changes too, swapping my high-pressure office job for a freelance career as an architect. I created time for the things I loved, like yoga, writing and travel. I also became a yoga teacher.

  • A few years after my diagnosis, I had blood tests to check my fertility levels. They were normal.

  • But I was still single.

  • Go online, a friend recommended. Everyone does these days.

  • The first couple of years on Guardian Soulmates brought a few short relationships. Nothing serious though.

  • I’d almost given up hope when, one cold December night, I spotted an image of a gorgeous blue-eyed man, laughing as he took a photo with an old-fashioned camera. I want to be with him, was my knee-jerk response. Totally irrational, of course. If anything, he looked a touch pretentious.

  • In person, Mark was a down-to-earth Northerner. Who rather liked me too. And so began our great love affair.

  • I was so excited to finally have a boyfriend again. To stay up until the early hours, having sex and chatting in bed over midnight feasts; to go away for weekends together.

  • I was in no rush to start trying for a baby, even though I was in my late thirties. I was having too much fun. He wasn’t even sure he wanted children. Still, I hoped we’d try someday.

  • In the middle of our first blissful summer together, life threw me another surprise: I discovered I carried a mutated gene, called BRCA1, which put me at an up to an 85% lifetime risk of getting breast cancer again.

  • The safest option was a double mastectomy. But I didn’t feel psychologically ready. So to begin with, I chose the alternative option of annual MRI screening.

  • A couple of years after we got together, Mark and I started trying for a child. By now I was in my early forties. I had my fertility levels checked again. They were above average for my age.

  • My mum had conceived easily at this age. I was naively optimistic that my path would be similar.

  • What I hadn’t factored in was that Mark and I were now in a long-distance relationship. His work had taken him to Germany while mine had kept me in London. Seeing one another only twice a month wasn’t exactly great for baby-making.

  • With time, we learnt we were also dealing with male-factor issues.

  • So we turned to assisted reproduction, first trying IUI (intrauterine insemination), then IVF.

  • Because I’d not yet had a double mastectomy, I was advised to only try natural-cycle IVF, which is basically drug free. Taking hormones was considered too risky.

  • We did two rounds of natural-cycle and got nowhere.

  • I decided it was time for a mastectomy.

  • Which meant that if I did have a baby, I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed.

  • ‘Breast is best,’ we are constantly told. I worried I’d be doing a baby a disservice if I couldn’t feed it my own milk. Would I ruin its health? Should I even have one?

  • My mastectomy went well, and I was surprised at how good reconstructed breasts could look and feel.

  • Once I’d recovered, we tried IVF again. Almost all my own breast tissue had been removed, and replaced with silicon implants, so the IVF drugs prescribed were considered of negligible risk.

  • I was so used to negative pregnancy tests, that I wasn’t expecting those two strong blue lines. They appeared on a beautiful Saturday morning in April, and I spent the day wandering around London in a happy daze.

  • Eight days later, I began bleeding.

  • I had to wait five long days before a scan could show whether the pregnancy was still viable.

  • I prepared myself for the worst.

  • The strength of the heartbeat coming from this tiny speck, just a couple of millimetres long, shocked me. Made me sob.

  • The rest of my pregnancy went smoothly. The only symptom I experienced was intermittent, but searing pain in my breasts. No-one could explain quite why. Though my mastectomy was considered the culprit.

  • In a way, I wanted to stay pregnant forever. I loved carrying my son, knowing he was part of me, yet I still had my freedom. Much as I longed for motherhood, I was also scared of losing that freedom and the great work-life balance I’d created for myself post-cancer.

  • The beginning of motherhood was indeed quite a shock. Making toast for lunch and actually having time to eat it became a rare luxury.

  • What I hadn’t factored in though was that not being able to breastfeed had some advantages (even though it made me sad, too).

  • It meant my husband could do feeds and give me a bit of a break. It meant an uninterrupted night’s sleep at the weekend. And it was great at helping my husband and son bond, which they’ve done, big time.

  • Plus, I was relaxed when I was feeding. Of course, some women find breastfeeding easy, pleasurable even. But I know plenty who’ve really struggled and been in agony, yet felt so guilty about using formula.

  • Would people who didn’t know my story judge me for not breastfeeding? When I met up with my antenatal group for brunch each week, no-one batted an eyelid at my solo bottle of formula.

  • The only person who ever commented was an older man on a raw milk stall at a farmer’s market. ‘Do you know what crap they put in that stuff?’ he said when I happened to mention the F-word.

  • I think I’d be quite a different kind of mother had I not had cancer.

  • My diagnosis brought up a lot of uncomfortable feelings, such as fear, sadness and anger. The ones we tend to want to push away.

  • During treatment I had some therapy, which helped me recognise that these emotions are an inevitable part of life, especially when we hit challenges, and that it’s more helpful to allow ourselves to feel them and accept them, rather than deny them.

  • That way, they can more easily pass through us, rather than get stuck inside.

  • As a result, when my son becomes inconsolable, as two-year-olds are so good at doing, instead of saying: Shh, don’t cry, or being freaked out by his big feelings, I’m better able to stay steady and let his storm ride out.

  • I hug him and tell him tears are healthy, and being sad is part of life. That it will pass and he will soon be happy again. I don’t want him to be afraid of emotions.

  • Especially as a boy, where phrases like ‘boys don’t cry’ get thrown about.

  • One of my son’s favourite books is about a little boy called Alfie. In it, Alfie falls off his scooter and is very brave and tries not to cry. When we read the book, I tell my son why we’re missing out those lines. Now, he always reminds me to do so.

  • Something else having cancer taught me was the importance of making the most of your life right now.

  • Because who knows what the future holds.

  • With that in mind, I want to enjoy motherhood as much as possible. This means carving out some time for myself too, and the things I love, rather than giving every ounce of myself to my son.

  • I’m a happier and more present mother when I’ve spent Saturday morning taking a yoga class while my husband and son go to the playground. Or enjoyed dinner out with a friend.

  • Inevitably though, there are times being a mum can feel frustrating and boring. Like when I’m shivering in a freezing January park, longing to head home, while my son insists on jumping into every single puddle.

  • But when I remind myself that nothing lasts forever, and there will come a day (perhaps all too soon) when my delicious puddle-jumping, squishy-cheeked toddler will grow up and no longer want to spend all his time with me, it helps me shift boredom into appreciation for what are actually precious moments.

  • Remembering how close I came to not having any of this also helps.

  • In the aftermath of my diagnosis, I was terrified my cancer would return and I’d die young.

  • Five years on, I realised I was more likely to survive than not. But still single, I feared love and motherhood would evade me.

  • I’m very lucky my husband and son came my way in the end. Deep-down, I don’t forget this.

  • Even though they sometimes drive me nuts: my toddler still wandering around at 9pm when he’s been on the go since 6am and I’m longing to watch Netflix; my husband telling me he can’t possibly do any washing up as it hurts his back.

  • Overactive toddlers and bad backs are, of course, part of life. And it’s a life I’m so grateful to have. One that is full of love. One that I could never have dreamed of on that fateful day I heard those shattering words, ‘You have cancer.’

** ‘Hidden: Young, Single, Cancer’ published by Blue Door Press is out now.

** Annabel’s website is www.annabelchown.com

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** ‘But why do people get cancer?‘But why do people die and are they just sleeping?’ andBut why do adults drink beer and what does it do?’ are some of the tricky questions I tackle in my debut book BUT WHY? which is available to order now  and also on audiobook.**

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FANCY SOME MORE?

–  READ Bye Bye Boobs by Carly Moosah, who celebrates life post-chemo in this ode to her boobs ahead of a double mastectomy.

–  READ Emma Campbell’s mind-blowing list Cancer: The Gift That Keeps Giving. Emma is a mother to four children (including triplets) and a long term cancer survivor.

–  READ Laura Hyde’s list The BRCA1 Cancer Gene and how having access to genetic testing and preventative surgeries is something many of her family had not been so fortunate to have.

–  READ Cock Off Cancer by Deborah James, who was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer in her 30s and her capacity to live life is exceptional.

–  READ Living Flat (Life Without Breasts) by Julie Fitzpatrick who explains why, after having a double mastectomy, she opted to ‘live flat’.

–  LISTEN to this truly inspiring episode of Honestly podcast as Deborah James and Saima Thompson discuss having stage 4 cancer.

 

OR HOW ABOUT WRITING A LIST?

Find submission guidelines here.  All writers and topics  are welcome.

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