When I was going through treatment for cancer I had some disconcerting moments when I flashed back to being pregnant. Despite the profound differences between them, the two experiences will probably always be linked in my mind, but not my heart.
My treatments came in the form of BCG infusions, which is inactivated bovine tuberculosis virus. About 9 to 12 hours after the infusion, I would be smacked in the face by tiredness. It didn’t creep up or build. It was a wall suddenly appearing in front of me that I walked into at speed. It dropped me.
When it happened the first time, I immediately remembered being pregnant, especially during the first trimester, and being hit by hunger. It was the same sort of trigger. One minute fine. The next hungry. Desperately, eat the hard, dried crusts of toasts from breakfast, hungry.
I remember being in a meeting with a friend who was pregnant when she was hit by one of these ravenous moments. She dumped her purse out onto the conference table and ate the scattered mints and granola bar crumbs left at the bottom with kleenex lint.
It shocked me that pregnancy, which resulted in the most amazing gift I’ve ever received, shared visceral qualities with cancer and treatment. As I thought about it, though, I remembered how challenging, both emotionally and physically, pregnancy was for me.
As I put this list together of four ways having cancer and being pregnant mirror each other, I’ve been learning about the ways one challenge can help prepare us for other challenges along the way. Coping with and surviving one challenge can give us hope and confidence that we are prepared for others.
The big year. While it isn’t true for everyone, for those of us with early stage cancers, from diagnosis to end of treatment and return to “normal” life is about 9 months to a year. Like pregnancy, that year comes with constant medical assessment and poking and prodding, scans and needles and nasty tasting liquids and peeing in cups. The waiting for results and the hours wasted in waiting rooms. The cold offices and sitting on crackly paper covers on the exam tables.
Since I have bladder cancer, the experience of seeing the doctor was eerily the same, too. Clothes off from the waist down, feet in stirrups and the doc showing me an image on a monitor. It was lots more fun, however, to see my baby than it was to see my bladder.
Pastel glow masking cold fear. This is where the comparison may be very idiosyncratic, more about my own neuroses than about the things being compared. For me, however, both being pregnant and being treated for cancer involved a clash between expectations and realities. I had a miscarriage before I had my daughter, so fear was a strong emotion during my pregnancy. Like bladder cancer, the miscarriage announced itself by the presence of a lot of blood.
Not only that, but the testing along the way caused anxiety. Would they find something wrong? Was the heart beating? Was she moving enough, too much?
For the outside world, though, pregnancy puts you under a pastel filter. You’re expected to be peaceful and content, deeply happy, unconflicted about the future. With cancer, the world desperately needs you to be positive and brave, strong and fearless. We’re the Madonna and Ali McGraw to the outside world, but behind closed doors it’s Leaving Las Vegas and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Growth of the alien. At the cellular level, both cancer and pregnancy are about growth. In an ideal pregnancy the growth is regular and predictable, organizing cells into a human being. My daughter always had a tiny hand resting on her cheek in the ultrasound images. Even in those old, fuzzy scans of the late 90s, these cells were obviously a baby, already expressing preferences and tendencies.
Growth of cancer does not organize itself quite so productively. It is growth for the sake of growth, building and dividing for the purpose of spreading throughout the organism it feeds on and simultaneously destroys. On the scans it’s not always recognizable to patients. My tumor was a combination mushroom cloud/broccoli sprout. The staining on the slides makes the cells seem beautiful, but the actual image of the tumor is like finding mold in a plastic container at the back of the fridge.
For me both growth processes created the sense of an alien inside and in control. Physical and emotional feelings seem unrelated to the person you were. Something inside is driving you, taking precedence over your own desires and needs, feeding off of you. Your body is no longer your own, but seems to belong to an invisible entity.
Of course, with pregnancy, the invisibility gives way to ponderous, unavoidable visibility, and the alien starts interacting. I loved poking my daughter’s elbow and feeling her poke back or feeling her agitation during loud movies.
Becoming a new person. For better or worse, both pregnancy and cancer have challenged me to become a better person and not just a different one. Both processes seemed to trump and overshadow the core parts of me. I was identified by and with being pregnant and having cancer. I was suddenly—even before a baby was born—a mommy and—even before remission was achieved—a survivor. These identities were thrust upon me long before I was ready for them.
I was also challenged to give up control. That’s not quite right. I was challenged to admit that I didn’t have control over significant aspects of my life. My instinct with both experiences was to fight back, to scratch and claw in an attempt to maintain life as usual. I was resolved to not give in to exhaustion, to work as many hours as before, to eat and exercise the same way.
It’s an impossible goal, something even an overachiever and tirelessly hard worker will fail at. So, I had to re-imagine who I was and who I wanted to be. As my body became foreign and the object of scrutiny by people whose first names were obscured by titles, my identify found new places to take shape.
The word of the year for both experiences was “acceptance.” I have to say, though, I’ve made much better progress with acceptance in struggling with cancer than I did in struggling with pregnancy. Perhaps it’s the difference between feeling conflicted, loving and hating pregnancy depending on the moment, and feeling clarity about hating cancer at every moment.
Or, maybe, being pregnant helped prepare me for having cancer. The gulf between the two is that pregnancy is the best gift I’ve been given and that cancer is not a gift at all.
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