After being diagnosed, which was in itself an overwhelmingly stressful period, came another overwhelmingly stressful possibility about my future: children – or the fact that treatment would mean it was likely that I would become infertile, which is an overwhelming thought for an 18 year old.
It was my parents who brought it up with my consultant, in one of the very first appointments. I was there in person, but my mind was completely AWOL, stuck in a parallel universe where I didn’t have cancer and I was healthy and my life was completely normal. I think I managed to hold myself together for all of ten seconds, then I began to sob uncontrollably. I’d always thought that one day I’d probably have children of my own so the thought of not even having the option to have children was just as devastating as finding out about the cancer in the first place.
Would I be a crazy cat lady, surrounded by cats and empty bottles of wine? A spinster for the rest of my days on earth?
The consultant was totally honest with me from the offset.
Chemotherapy affects everybody in different ways, but it may affect a woman’s ability to have children as the ovaries, therefore the eggs, are damaged during treatment.
During the appointment we broached the possibility of going through IVF/egg freezing and I was definitely keen. Within a few days I had an appointment at St. Mary’s Hospital in Manchester to discuss the matter with an IVF doctor.
The process of egg freezing took two weeks but we were really working against the clock because the cancer was worsening and I was deteriorating. The IVF would mean that chemotherapy would be postponed and I needed to start my treatment as soon as possible.
After a few phone calls between hospitals, the doctors decided that I could go through with the IVF providing that I started it that day. They could tell how important to me it was that I at least had the option of children in the future, so they were willing to halt chemotherapy for the time being. That meant I would be starting chemotherapy a week after finishing my IVF treatment: August the 7th. So technically, I had two weeks of ‘freedom’ and could enjoy my boyfriends 21st and could potentially go to the Royal Welsh Show – excellent.
The first appointment at St. Mary’s was emotional and really, really scary.
The doctor talked my parents and I through the whole treatment process but I could barely look the doctor in the eyes and I was crying. Admittedly, I was difficult and petulant and huffy and I’m sorry about that now but at the time it was incredibly hard: I was 18 years old and had to decide whether I was willing to inject hormones into my body daily for two weeks and for an outcome that may not affect me anyway. It was hard to see the bigger picture and find perspective at the time, but I went ahead with it.
I signed what felt like a thousand consent forms though I didn’t even read them. I knew what was going to happen. It was just another hurdle for me to jump over, another hoop to jump through. As we had travelled so far for our appointment, they squeezed everything into that day so we didn’t have to come back the next day. I was sent for blood tests, scans, x-rays and had to sign more consent forms and meet the nurse who explain the injections. IVF is very complicated and to be honest, I still don’t understand how it works but I had to inject myself twice a day between 4-7pm for two weeks, and go to the hospital in Manchester every other day for two weeks in order to have scans and to take blood samples. My ovaries were monitored in order for the doctors to know when the eggs were the perfect size to be removed. Travelling to Manchester every other day was a huge pain in the arse and I only had two weeks until I started my chemo so time was running out. This fortnight was the perfect time to go out and have fun with my friends, especially as they were about to head off to university and I was destined to be bedbound and bald for the next six months, but it was back-to-back appointments and travelling for me. I was upset that the ‘best summer of my life’ was not turning out as planned and although my health had to come first, it was really frustrating that I was missing out on everything.
So, we managed to convince the hospital (and my amazing nurse at the time) to let me go to the Royal Welsh Show for two nights, and miss one of my appointments. My eggs were growing to the size they needed to be, so they were happy…ish for me to go providing I kept up my injections.
They also warned me not to drink…too much. Apparently alcohol and IVF do not mix.
I found that out the hard way.
I injected myself at 4pm on the dot and by 4:15 I was ordering my first drink of many, many, many.
Although there were some excellent side effects to the IVF, like the fact that my breasts were massive for the first time EVER, there were also negative side effects: I was a complete emotional wreck. And let’s face it, alcohol and sky-high emotions don’t mix. I was carried back to the caravan at 10pm, a drunken, messy mess. It may not sound like the cleverest thing I’ve ever done, but it was a chance to let my hair down (while I still had it), before treatment.
I am immensely glad that I was allowed to go to the show because I was allowed to spend time with my friends, but everybody else had now started to find out about my illness, and they didn’t know how to talk to me, approach me and were shocked to see me out and about; at the time I didn’t know how to handle them either, so there were many awkward exchanges. By now, I don’t care what people think, and I think of leaving the house as a big achievement.
Two weeks flew by and I was removing my eggs in no time. It is usually a small procedure, under sedation but things were going to be complicated for me.
It wasn’t as simple as just putting me under anaesthetic for two reasons: First of all, the mass in my lung cavity was pressing against my wind pipe so I would probably have trouble breathing under sedation. Secondly, my mother has a genetic condition in which she reacts badly to anaesthetic so I, too, was at risk. Anaesthetic, therefore, was completely out of the question.
The only possible option then was to have an epidural.
It was not pleasant, nor was it enjoyable. At all.
I was awake for the procedure so I had to walk into the operating theatre.
The inside of a theatre is scary – all the machines, and equipment, beds that look like long metal trays. I had to sit on the side of the bed in order for the anaesthetist to inject the epidural with this long needle.
“Lucky you’re nice and slim, it’s much easier to insert.” At this stage, I wish I had my old puppy fat to protect me. But after a few minutes, I was numb anyway.
Unfortunately, the next part of the procedure was less like an episode of Casualty and more Fifty Shades of Grey.
My legs wide open hoisted in the air and strapped to something or other.
As if that wasn’t mortifying enough, the doctor sat in front of me but it felt like she was on top of me and I was just praying she wasn’t going to turn all Christian Grey on me. Luckily, she didn’t and instead I could just feel her wriggling this huge phallic shaped giant camera inside of me.
The fact that I was awake made everything seem so much worse – I just wanted to forget about the bloody eggs and run away somewhere, anywhere. But I couldn’t feel my legs so I just had to wait it out.
Even though the nurses tried to make me feel more at ease by asking questions about my life and played with my hair, I really just wanted to just get on with it, silently. I looked at the little screen and watched this camera move around inside me. I could see eggs in the ovaries. The procedure felt like it had taken hours but it was finally over and they sent my eggs to the lab to count and check if they were suitable for freezing.
They pulled 14 eggs that day. They are sitting in the freezer at the hospital in case I do need them one day in the future.
Perhaps they will not be needed. Perhaps I will have enough children to start my own football team or perhaps I will be a crazy cat lady – but it will be my choice. It will be one less decision that cancer has made for me and one less option that cancer has taken away from me.