As I reflect on how I want to recognize and bring awareness to Black Maternal Health Week #BMHW22, I would be remiss to not share my personal story to help empower other Black Mammas navigating pregnancy during and or after a breast cancer diagnosis. I was 33 years old with a 3 year old when I got diagnosed with breast cancer. Prior to my diagnosis, I thought breast cancer only happened to old women going through menopause…so, when I got my diagnosis seeing my reproductive health taken away from me to save my life really hurt the most for me personally. I was told that I could freeze my eggs prior to starting chemotherapy in 2017….but I had to pay 20K for all the procedures and medications and I had to provide that within 24hours. I unfortunately was not able to do that and it really made me depressed…. It just didn’t seem fair that I was losing my reproductive health because of cancer.
I later learned from my oncologist during treatment that I could potentially test my fertility and try to have a baby naturally despite not being able to freeze eggs prior to chemotherapy. She showed me a study that had young women who had completed active treatment and had been on maintenance treatment ( #tamoxifen ) for two years were able to pause their maintenance treatment that was slated for 10 years to attempt to have a baby naturally. In 2019, I hit my two year mark and paused the tamoxifen in November of 2019. I had to have a 3 month washout period, so my IUD was kept in place. Then COVID happened in 2020 and threw off the plans, but finally in May 2020, I got to take my IUD out. My husband and I started trying to conceive after getting the green light. There were many moments when I thought we would never get pregnant and in October of 2020, I started to think that it really was not going to happen and I started to get worried about how long I had been off tamoxifen and if I was increasing my risk for recurrence. I made an appointment with my oncologist to understand my options and risks. My supportive oncologist listened to all my concerns and then encouraged me…telling me, in the on-going study there was no magical math to the time it took for women that took the pause from tamoxifen to get pregnant ….and yes my concern for being off tamoxifen too long was valid but encouraged me to give myself a little more time and wait and see.
Fast forward to December 2020, we found out that we were expecting a baby boy and the moment was sort of surreal, till this day, I look at my son and it feels surreal at times because it has been such a full circle moment. During the first trimester of the pregnancy, I was cautiously excited, then the second trimester- I had many moments that were challenging and made me question if I had made a good decision to become pregnant. I thought to myself, I should be happy but I am scared…..I won’t be able to breastfeed my son……. what was I thinking …….getting pregnant is hard on the body at an older age. I really had to do some deep self work during the second trimester and my therapist helped me navigate through it and my belief in God allowed me to get through. Then the third trimester, I felt a shift and became more excited and expectant. My baby boy made it all the way to 39 weeks, which was a huge deal because I was seeing a maternal fetal specialist during the whole pregnancy due to my history of breast cancer, my age and other risk factors.
I was scheduled for a vaginal induction on August 29th 2021. Due to COVID19 restrictions, I was only able to have my husband with me at the hospital….. I actually felt very lucky because I knew other women that delivered previously did not have the option to have anyone else in the room for delivery during the height of the pandemic. Once admitted to the hospital, things went from excited and expectant to full on panic mode. My baby boy’s heart rate was through the roof and after multiple manipulations to help decrease his heart rate they came to the conclusion that I would not have a vaginal induction. I was completely devastated because my first son was vaginal and I wanted to have this one the same way, especially since I would not be able to breastfeed him. In my head... I had this notion that having a vaginal birth would help keep him protected and prove that I was still able to push him out despite not being able to breastfeed him…Yeah, I had a lot of mental hang ups due to not being able to breastfeed…
Sidebar: If you are reading this and in a similar boat….virtual hugs to you…it takes some time, therapy and coaching to unpack and learn how to embrace it….find out if you can ask your doctor to write you a prescription for formula and make a note that it is medically necessary….you will thank me later on the significant savings you will gain (assuming you have insurance).
I begrudgingly agreed to the c section, one minute before it changed to a stat c-section because of his heart rate. The c-section was so traumatizing because it brought back up for me my double mastectomy surgery. Being in the operating room, the smell, the shining lights and all the gadgets they have in there brought me back to the feelings I associated with my double mastectomy of being hopeless, helpless and giving up my body to save my life. Here I was again, giving up my body to save my son's life and that triggered a lot of trauma from my breast cancer diagnosis.
Due to my baby boys’ heart rate at birth the doctors suspected an infection, so once he was born they immediately put an IV line in his tiny little veins to give him antibiotics every four hours. We were in the hospital for about a week, it was all very traumatizing. Prior to going in for the delivery, I was trying to mentally prepare for the dreaded question, “so why are you not breastfeeding?”..... I had considered making a poster stating “This Mamma is a Survivor, No Breastfeeding Zone”
Sidebar: if you are reading this and in a similar position, I know a ton of survivors that got a poster like this made, ask a friend or family member to do it for you as part of the baby shower gifts……but I never got the poster because things at the end was so busy with me choosing to work all the way till delivery…Double sidebar: First and foremost, breastfeeding is an individual choice for women, secondly, never ask a breast cancer survivor, if they are breastfeeding or not. For me, giving up my breast to save my life from cancer can still be rather triggering and furthermore, I don’t have breast tissue, so I am unable to breastfeed) #BMHW22
Unfortunately, I got asked this question a few times and it turns out the person asking always felt pretty stupid after asking because they should have read my chart and did not…..healthcare professionals lets do better!
I found myself really struggling with various things mentally. In the hospital they recommended that I see the psychiatrist because I showed signs of postpartum anxiety and depression. After coming home, I was able to see my therapist (Side bar: due to the pandemic accelerating the mental health crisis, it is very difficult to get on any mental health providers calendar, so if you find yourself needing help, please seek it out sooner rather than later and get on a wait list if you have to do so…..postpartum women should be at the top of the list as high priority) The psychiatrist recommended I go back to see my therapist and also consider group therapy. So I scheduled an appointment with my therapist and sat down to unpack it with her. (Double sidebar: I want to be very transparent here and empower at least one person… My therapist did an amazing job of listening while I unpacked and suggesting a few things to consider, but she also asked if I got my tubes tied. This was triggering, I was 3 weeks out from delivery and the question just did not land well on my spirit. Triple sidebar: in my current state of the traumatic birth that triggered the traumatic loss of my breast, I did not have the bandwidth to handle anyone telling or suggesting that I get rid of my reproductive organs, I already was dealing with the loss of other parts that I had to get rid of because of cancer….) After the appointment, I wrestled with other things said by my therapist during the appointment and after talking with one of my bestie that had experienced postpartum depression in the past, I decided that I should find a new therapist that focused on postpartum.
(Side bar: I share this story not to shame my therapist but to let folks know that as you do the tough work on your mental health journey, you will find at times you need one thing during a certain time in your life and another during another time period.)
I found another therapist, and I enrolled in an 8 week group therapy program. I leaned into this new season of vulnerability that exposed my core and I found resources to empower me on this new journey.
As I reflect back on it all, I know that during my breast cancer diagnosis, I made an intentional decision to prioritize my wellness on my recovery journey, I did the work to help me unpack the internal psychological threats that continuously fired after hearing “I am sorry you have breast cancer”, this allowed me to have the self awareness, inner wisdom and discernment that I needed help coping with the challenge I was experiencing with postpartum anxiety. This is who I am, a breast cancer survivor that is thriving despite breast cancer. This is what I teach my clients as a mindset coach at SEW, mental wellness coaching. We coach clients to prioritize their wellness during their breast cancer recovery journey which empowers and equips them to cope successfully with other future life challenges. As a survivor you have to do the mindset work to ensure you thrive long after breast cancer. Check out our coaching programs if you would like to thrive despite breast cancer or join the waiting list for the next FREE 10 day wellness challenge!
DISCLAIMER: Although I am a pharmacist I am not YOUR pharmacist. All information contained in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and does not establish any kind of patient-client relationship. The information provided in this blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute professional medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. Always seek advice from your physician or other qualified healthcare provider before undertaking a new health regimen. Do not start or stop any medications without speaking to your medical or mental health provider.