I just finished 20 weeks of chemotherapy for stage II triple-negative breast cancer and am waiting to get my tumor (or what’s left of it) surgically removed.
Handling all of this — in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, no less — has been the biggest hurdle of my life by far.
But I will say that having a miscarriage two years ago was nearly as devastating for me — and maybe even worse at times, physically and emotionally, than my cancer diagnosis. And yet, women are seemingly expected to skate over that pain just because it is so “common.” Well, so is cancer.
It was January 2018. Awards season had just kicked off in Los Angeles and I had just covered the Golden Globes red carpet for an entertainment magazine. A few days later, I was off to an intimate birthday dinner for Mary J. Blige at the Hollywood restaurant Ago. Yes, it sounds glamorous but after years of running around in heels, I often dreamed of sweats and pizza at home, although it was pretty cool dancing with MJB to “Family Affair.”
I had a couple of “champers” (my preferred poison) at the bar but then shockingly, I suddenly did not desire another. I didn’t drink most days of the week, but if champagne was flowing, I could easily have 95 flutes of it. I just unexpectedly lost a craving for champagne. It was something straight out of the Twilight Zone.
The next day, I realized that my period was supposed to have arrived somewhere between Best Supporting Actor and Best Screenplay, but … it didn’t. And I had been too busy buzzing around red carpets to notice until now.
“You should take a test,” my partner said over the phone. Could I be? At 38 years old, I had never been pregnant. We had just gotten back from the Dominican … I didn’t say anything but marched over to CVS immediately. I wanted it to be my idea to get the test, naturally.
On my walk home, I was close to stopping in this downtown L.A. dive bar called The Golden Gopher — not to drink, but because I thought it would be funny to take the test there (so I’d have a good story for my future child). Anything for a laugh. Maybe that’s part of my problem but that’s another saga. My warped sense of humor runs in my family.
I went home to take the test, though, and sure enough, it was positive.
The weeks following brought some intense highs and lows in a very condensed amount of time. We had an early, healthy heartbeat and an ultrasound pic with a heart drawn around it waiting to share it with the world.
My mind started sifting through baby names, baby shower themes, who would be there for the birth, would I do a natural childbirth, in what outfit we would bring him or her home from the hospital? I had not been a detail-oriented bride. I was not even into wedding stuff, really. Who am I?!!
My whole life changed rapidly in my head, and I was embracing it. And also getting a bit ahead of myself, I know.
So this was it. I finally knew what that “maternal instinct” felt like, or at least a sliver of it. I surprised myself and was taking things overly seriously. Not one sip of wine. No “bad” food, all health food. My entire thought process shifted toward what was best for our baby.
Frankly, I was shocked that I was pregnant. I never knew if it would happen for me. I never had a sense about it and my intuition is strong.
Then one day shortly after the big news, I started bleeding off and on, which was sometimes normal, but of course I was paranoid. I got in to see the doctor as soon as possible. There was a minor tear, but the baby was okay. However, I was told I had a threatened miscarriage (a higher-risk pregnancy) and had to take it easy in bed, which I did.
But then I kept bleeding more. By the time I went back in for another check-up, the baby’s heartbeat was slowing down. My doctor predicted that it would continue to slow down. No! My body is strong. My baby is strong. The doctor is wrong. There is still hope.
But she was right. My next appointment, there was no heartbeat. We lost the baby at eight weeks.
“There’s nothing that you did wrong,” my doctor said. But I didn’t believe that deep down. I think stress and hormones have a huge impact on health and pregnancy, and there was a high amount of stress going on in my life at the time.
Well, maybe not as much as now.
I was given a pill to help it pass and went back in for the last time only to stare blankly at the hollow hole showing up on the ultrasound screen where the teeny little life used to be. Faces of newborns gazed at me from the walls on printed cards with sayings like, “Welcome to the world, Sadie.”
The post-miscarriage hormones were no joke. I felt like a prisoner in my own body. My body was so low-energy from my plummeting hormones that I could barely walk across the street. I was in bed for nearly two months (a warm-up for later, apparently) and I suffered for months after. I would just wake up and cry. I blamed myself, I blamed my partner, I blamed financial stress, I blamed a Pilates workout I did that day when I felt something go wrong.
I didn’t understand how this could happen to ME. I wished I had been better prepared for this; I felt like I was sideswiped. I was never really warned about how common miscarriages are because no one seems to talk about it.
My doctor said nearly half of women don’t carry their baby to term. Everyone says the word “miscarriage” so casually and matter-of-factly on the surface when it’s all over, but they don’t share the individual pain they went through. Maybe we are just conditioned to do that.
Privately, many women opened up to me about their losses. Some had multiple miscarriages. It was a shocking number of women. What is this, some secret society? My mom even told me she had one before having me and I had zero clue. But then, hey, I wouldn’t be here! I’m a “rainbow baby,” as they say.
I know it could have been much worse. Some women have late pregnancy loss, which is unfathomable. But this was my experience, and then it was gone. And now that I’m a breast cancer patient in the midst of an unprecedented deadly pandemic, it looks like this baby might have been my only chance at going through one of the greatest joys in life.
But c’est la vie. There is something a little more pressing to get through first.
A lot of women who go through miscarriage wind up getting pregnant again right away, so that temporary pain is perhaps whisked away as new life finally comes to fruition. But not for me. And something just didn’t feel right.
I’ve always been the one to search for deeper meaning in a bad experience, or any experience really. I started to contemplate why this happened to me. “Everything happens for a reason,” I reminded myself.
“Maybe I’m going to get another fabulous job traveling that I wouldn’t have been able to take as a mother.”
“Maybe it’s just not the right time and I have a few more years of living it up.”
Then: “Maybe I’m going to get cancer or something and that’s why this didn’t happen for me,” I said this to my partner and friends who looked at me oddly, teasing me about how morbid I was.
It was a strange thing to say, I know, but I had a sense about it. I have had many prophetic dreams of loved ones’ deaths, illnesses, and accidents. I just couldn’t get it out of my head.
Well, it looks like the cancer had already been setting up camp. In hindsight, I remember thinking it was odd that my left breast had all of a sudden gotten bigger and I brushed it off as a pregnancy symptom, although I had been meaning to get that checked.
Maybe somehow that fleeting little life was here to warn me. Or to at least give me the gift of finding out I was going to be a mother so that I would have that experience, even if for a very short time, before cancer would threaten my life.
I am still fighting. I am still trying to make sense of all of this. But at least for the first time since my pregnancy loss, I am actually relieved that I do not have a child to take care of right now.
I have released a lot of that pain and blame as I redirected my energy for this larger battle.
It is difficult enough taking care of myself and focusing on survival. The stress of protecting a little one would be an unbearable weight, although I know innately I would muster the strength. I sympathize with parents right now who are not battling illness and struggling so much during our present situation — let alone parenting through cancer and COVID-19.
Dealing with financial stress and relationship stress is one thing, but the thought of dealing with a toddler during a cancer battle in a coronavirus pandemic has finally eased some of that resentment I had with myself and others.
We had planned to try for another baby when the time was right, but then the big “C” news happened. Although I went through the egg retrieval process prior to starting my cancer treatment, there may not be another chance for motherhood. I will just have to wait and see.
Everything is out of my control right now, and that’s OK. I’m not alone. Like I said, my doctor told me I did nothing wrong and I guess I’m just gonna have to go with that. For now, I’m riding out the world’s fate along with my own, finally at home in my sweats eating pizza and hoping to pop that bottle of champagne soon after some cancer-free news.
And then maybe, just maybe, my rainbow baby will come.
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BY: Marisa Sullivan
The Global Healthy Living Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with the mission to improve the quality of life for people living with chronic illness.