If one word could describe being pregnant at 21 after almost a year of being medically fragile at 19, only “oofda” comes to mind. As I sit here and share this with you from a hospital bed after a nasty experience with postpartum preeclampsia, I think we need to get into some things. I’d like to start off by saying that being pregnant was about as fun as being on a rollercoaster.
I hate rollercoasters.
(Just a disclaimer, folks, this is 100% a recount of my own personal experience of pregnancy after cancer. If you had a different experience, that’s great. There are many others like it but this one is mine. If birth trauma, pregnancy, fertility, postpartum care, breastfeeding, pain, or childbirth in general is triggering for you in any capacity, this is not a good read for you.)
After two and a half years of motherhood, reflecting on my pregnancy experience after having had been a cancer patient for a whopping eight months seems like forever ago. However, I was scrolling through my phone the other day and noticed I didn’t take very many pictures of myself during my pregnancies at all. I vehemently hated the way I looked. I was in so much pain from the additional sixty-plus pounds I had put on.
To make matters worse, I suffered immensely from a side effect from one of my chemotherapeutic medications known as bilateral peripheral neuropathy. Peripheral neuropathy is classified as the burning feeling or loss of sensation in the hands and feet. I have had it since my first infusion and my life has been drastically different since.
I wasn’t really prepared for the experiences of both cancer and pregnancy to collide in a time where my mental health was suffering the most. After moving to a brand new city away from all of my friends and family with my husband in Texas, I felt very isolated by the new surroundings. In addition to the life changes, we found out we were expecting almost immediately after we moved away. The ink on the referrals for hematology/oncology here were barely able to dry before another one was drafted for obstetrics and maternal-fetal medicine.
Additionally, I was still in the middle of an ongoing investigation into my sexual assault from the two years prior. The investigation would go on to conclude a month after I delivered my So much overlap between traumas, and so much neglect on how I was actually feeling about all of it. To sum it up: I survived. At the end of the day, I have plenty of scars to prove it (literally and figuratively) but years later, I am looking to heal from my wounds that seemingly remain open from ignoring the gravity of the impact those experiences really had on me.
Pregnancy fractured my medical identity as a cancer patient. Although I was cared for dearly by maternal-fetal medicine at Brooke Army Medical Center, it certainly was not the same experience I had as a pediatric cancer patient a year prior. I found out early in my first pregnancy that I was having twins, only to lose one of them to Vanishing Twin Syndrome in the first trimester. After that and a false positive on one of the pregnancy screening tests for spina bifida due to a dimple, I literally went postal and couldn’t handle any added stressors. I dropped out of full-time college to my own shame and embarrassment.
In addition, I felt conflicted about “missing” being a cancer patient because being pregnant felt so isolated from medical care, a place full of new choices and opportunities-something I wasn’t afforded when I was three weeks away from my deathbed. I felt guilty because so many of my cancer survivor peers were infertile due to treatments. It felt so foreign and like I didn’t deserve that privilege. Yet again, I still found myself ignoring my mental health.
Last but not least, the cross between pregnancy and sexual trauma hit me like a ton of bricks on the day of my twenty-first birthday. I was eligible for my very first pap smear and I had never understood what the procedure actually was. A male physician and my husband were in the room when it was given to me and after what felt like twenty-five transvaginal ultrasounds due to losing one of my twins, I immediately burst into tears in front of my husband from the retraumatization of having people constantly examining my genitals or inside of them. The scrape of a pap smear was enough to bring back the memories and feelings of being violated.
This isn’t supposed to be a sob story about how bad I felt during pregnancy. In February of last year, I finally snapped for the last time and pursued both psychiatry and long-term counseling at the request of my family. After almost a year on meds and therapy, I would definitely say that things are looking so much better after finally getting help for everything I had been neglecting for so long. I wasn’t prepared for how much overlap in traumas there were during pregnancy, but now, in motherhood, I am far more empowered to do anything I can to be more present and healthier for my family.