Rachel Deane - Ovarian Cancer
As a woman, one of the greatest gifts that we have within our power is to conceive and give life, experience that life and offer that life to the world. In so doing, we honour that child, ourselves, our loved ones and our ancestors.
I have a brief story to share with respect to fertility and ovarian cancer. I was 32 years old, a medical professional and in a long-term relationship with someone who wanted to have children. Although I had not completely resolved whether or not to make children a part of my life, I was very open to being a parent. I wanted to be in a solid emotional place either on my own or within a relationship – that would be the right time to decide. Because the relationship was not solid, this decision was delayed and having always been in perfect health, active and innately energetic, I assumed that I had plenty of time.
Seven and a half month fetus
During a training ride I injured my back and sought a GP’s advice for physiotherapy. Firstly I had to find a GP. I wasn’t registered with anyone because I was always in good health. And as I had noticed some discomfort in my abdomen over the past few months (probably just a result of the stress and perhaps a bit of irritable bowel syndrome, I thought), I asked him to check my stomach while I was there – two birds with one stone! He examined me briefly and gingerly asked me to make my way directly to radiology, that he would call ahead to let them know I was coming and told me to not stop in between. A young woman was at the door holding it open for me – “huh, what lovely service!” I thought! My ovarian tumor measured 28 cm x 12 cm and was larger than the radiologists screen, a fact that she bluntly informed me of. “This thing is the size of a seven and a half month fetus!” she exclaimed in an almost excitable tone. So life for me, my loved ones and any unborn children changed forever in that moment.
There was a substantial waiting list at the private hospital I would have attended but the public hospital could take me sooner, and I would have the same surgeon, so I was placed as high priority. However, a couple of days later the tumor got too large for my pelvic cavity to contain and it ‘popped out’. I started experiencing excruciating pain and it was thought that I was haemorrhaging internally so I was bumped up the hospital list and underwent surgery the next day. The subsequent histology report found the tumor to be malignant and so I was advised to have a full pelvic clearance – including the removal of the other ovary, my uterus and any chance whatsoever of having children of my own.
Four Options? Single Gay Woman? Doors close…
I needed expert advice. I sought the best fertility experts in the country and was given four options. The first, “do nothing, have the surgery and move on”. The second, “ovarian tissue slices cryogenically preserved” but to date not one child has been conceived in this way and the ovarian tissue they collect may be malignant. Not a winning option. Option three, “go through IVF treatment and cryogenically preserve a fertilized egg”, or option four “go through IVF and preserve an embryo”. This would mean delaying surgery to remove the cancer I now knew I had, go through the expense and uncertain results of IVF, and if there was a donor on record who was prepared to donate to a single gay woman (yes my relationship with a woman had newly dissolved and we were undergoing property separation proceedings). Doors closed. Then I also had the added disadvantage of having to undergo an Ethics Board approval process whereby a panel of ‘experts’ would asses my suitability to be allowed to seek surrogacy. In New Zealand’s history, never has a gay woman ever been granted surrogacy due to perceived ‘unsuitability’ to raise a child. Another doors closed. I didn’t have that fight in me at the time and I reluctantly ‘chose’ option one.
Choice is King
I grew up believing in and living “Choice is King”. Having the freedom to choose who I want to be, where I want to be, whom I want to be with etc is my personal mantra. Therefore, at first, I personally found choosing option one not a choice at all, but a forced choice. I spent a lot of time being bitter about my freedom of choice being taken away. For an as-yet-unchosen child of mine, the grief was overwhelming. I felt a total lack of freedom to choose anything because of this diagnosis and it was being spearheaded by my enforced infertility. I am now 3 years clear of cancer (with just a couple of temporarily elevated CA125 and CA19’s) and I still feel this grief profoundly at times. It is echoed in details like our family’s antique cameo bracelet, which has engraved on the back of each cameo, the initials of the beautiful and powerful women of my lineage – there are two cameos left, one for me and one for my daughter. For a young woman aware of her Maori heritage with its traditional and spiritual emphasis on community and family, I felt an extra burden. Interestingly, the chief of our tribe (Kahungunu, a tall, handsome and hard working man who had nine wives) was a lover, not a fighter, and known as a prolific chief with many, many children.
Discussions with my counselor, Lucy (at the Cancer Society, Auckland), have uncovered the fact that I would have indeed chosen to have children, and further that I still would like children. I may just need to be more creative. However, I am happy to say that I no longer struggle with the sense of disappointing an entire ancestral heritage, although it did take some time!
And I realise now that I actually did have a choice. Also, that I did make a choice. I made a choice for life – my own. And I’m glad I did because now I get to choose lots of things in life. One of my recent choices that I am proud of is to volunteer my service to the management of the Silver Ribbon Foundation for Gynae Cancers. In this capacity I am blessed to have met some of the most wonderfully generous, strong and talented women of any organisation and help deliver a service that enables other women to transform a cancer diagnosis from something that seems impossible to cope with into being manageable. For that, and many other beautiful things, I am truly grateful!