Adopting After Cancer: A Love Story
I was first diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer at age 29, way back in 1988. The protocol at that time was to tell women to wait 5 years before getting pregnant or, as my breast surgeon so crudely put it, “Baby might not have a Mama”. Nothing like the subtle approach to shut down any further questions on that subject!
5 years passed, and I went to my “cure” date mammogram confident that all was well. It wasn’t. The cancer had returned to the same breast and as I had radiation the first time, the only option left was a mastectomy and 9 months of chemotherapy.
I again heard the “Baby and Mama” speech. I was told that chemo could possibly put me permanently into early menopause but as I was still only 34, there was a good chance the menopause symptoms would only be temporary. There was no further discussion about the impact
chemotherapy might have on my future fertility. I assumed that if my period returned, it would mean my reproductive system had not been affected. My period did return and I was thrilled.
2 more years passed and the cancer returned to the opposite breast. I had a new breast surgeon who said the 5 year pregnancy rule was no longer being followed and that if I wanted a child, I should start trying immediately as I was already 36, my biological clock was ticking, and I had a history of chemotherapy. She was the first one to let me know that period or no period, my reproductive system may have been adversely affected by chemotherapy, making it more difficult to conceive a child.
Her suspicions were confirmed when blood tests showed my hormone levels seemed to belong to a much older woman. It was as if chemotherapy had accelerated the aging of my reproductive system by 5 – 10 years. I later learned this was the first sign of premature ovarian failure.
My then husband and I were quickly referred to a fertility clinic for pregnancy assistance. There was much confusion about whether to give fertility drugs to a 3 time breast cancer survivor. No one really knew if it was safe or not but finally the Cancer Clinic gave a guarded okay to the procedure as my cancers had all been hormone negative.
We had 2 cycles of IVF treatment that could only be seen as a dismal failure. A woman my age should have produced 12 – 18 eggs each cycle but my body only produced 2 eggs the first time and one egg the second time. Neither cycle produced a pregnancy. The fertility doctors shook their heads and said there was nothing more that they could do as it seemed unlikely I would get pregnant, at least not with my husband. They suggested foregoing further IVF treatments and using the money to pay for adoption.
At that time, I wasn’t willingly to consider adoption as a viable alternative tofamily building. I just wanted to become pregnant and give birth like seemingly every other woman I knew. It all seemed to be so easy for othes to become pregant, even when getting pregnant happened accidentally. I was extremely sad and angry for months afterwards, feeling that cancer had stolen another huge piece of my life.
In retrospect, I am happy that we didn’t jump immediately upon the adotion bandwagon. I needed time to cry and process my feelings of loss of never being able to be pregnant or give birth to a child. Many tears later, I finally had clarity about what I wanted for my life. I wanted children, a family, and whether those children came about through pregnancy or adoption didn’t matter any longer. While pregnancy and childbirth may not be a part of my story, I decided that motherhood could still be a part of my life.
I remember reading a story that was circulating at the time. It talked about adoption being like planning a vacation to Europe where all your friends had gone before but finding out you landed in Australia instead. While at first you are upset that you took an unexpected turn and didn’t get to your destination the way you planned, you fell in love with Australia and felt blessed that you landed there instead. That story resonated deeply within me and I realized that as long as I had my children, it really didn’t matter that I took a different route to get them than the traditional path taken by my friends.
My then husband and I were pretty clueless about what was involved in the adoption process. We chose a local agency and became educated very quickly. We would first have to have a home study completed by one of the agency’s social workers to see if we would be suitable parents. This would involve a series of interviews and investigations into our past and present lifestyles. It would include police checks, social service agency checks, medical checks (gulp), and recommendations from people in the community.
We would also have to attend educational seminars on parenting skills and in particular, in parenting children of other cultures and/or races. Finally we were told that once all those things had been completed, we should look for another adoption agency in another country as Canadian babies available for adoption were very few in number.
We were told there were numerous couples looking to adopt and that the birthmother in Canada would be the one to choose the birth parents. At 38, we were considered too old to be chosen by a local birthmother so we needed to look internationally for a child to adopt. This was much more complicated than getting pregnant and giving birth. We had to prove our worthiness to parent a child.
We managed to jump through all the required hoops with the only sticking point being my 3 cancers. The social worker basically wanted a written guarantee from my doctor stating I wouldn’t get cancer again. No doctor can do that of course but luckily (in this particular instance only) I had recently been tested for BRCA mutations and was (falsely) found to be negative. My doctor wrote that as my cancer wasn’t hereditary, my cancer history could be seen as just extremely bad luck and most probably, it wouldn’t show up again. The agency accepted her statement and we were off to find an international adoption agency.
We were given information about a few US agencies that would work with Canadians adopting mostly black or biracial newborns. We were also given a referral and a video from a California lawyer who specialized in matching white adoptive parents with white babies for 3 times the cost of the other agencies.
The video was my first introduction to the institutionalized racism that exists in the adoption world. The video featured white parents and their adopted white children at a picnic. The parents said things that horrified me such as not wanting to adopt “just any old baby”. They wanted a baby that looked like them (ie. a white baby). I was sickened after the video that people would value a white baby’s life as being worth three times as much as a black baby’s life
The more I looked at various agencies on the internet, the clearer it became that the price of adoption was linked to the color of the baby’s skin. I felt I would never be able to look myself in the mirror again if we chose to spend 3 times the money for a white skinned baby who wouldn’t necessarily be any cuter, smarter, funnier, or have a better personality than a baby with darker skin. We decided to go ahead and become a transracial family.
We signed with an adoption agency in Chicago that specialized in placing black or biracial babies for adoption. The first adoption of my son took exactly 9 months from the time we signed with the Chicago agency. Much like with my cancer journey, the adoption trail was rough and bumpy with opportunities for babies that fell through at the last minute for one reason or another.
There were dark days during the adoption process. Each loss of a potential baby felt like a miscarriage or a stillborn birth. Birth mothers disappeared, social service agencies took custody of another baby as they already had custody of her siblings, other birth mothers changed their minds about adoption once they actually gave birth, and one “birth mother” turned out to not even be pregnant with the twins she claimed to be carrying. At times I despaired that we would ever become parents.
But finally my dreams came true on November 10, 1999 when my then 6 day old son Carter was placed into my arms. For me anyways, it was love at first sight. My love for him has continued to grow each day he has been alive.
Our daughter Kayla came to us at 5 days of age when Carter was 16 months old. Once again, I fell in love with her right away and was as happy and contented as any new mother of 2 beautiful children could be. I can’t imagine loving a birth child any more than I love these 2 precious children who are now young teens. My love for them is fierce and strong. While I wish I could have experienced pregnancy and childbirth, these are the two children I wish had grown in my belly.
As life turned out, my marriage collapsed when the children were very young. I have been raising them alone as a single mother for many years, including an awful year in 2011 when I battled cancer 4. They really are my reason for trying to stay healthy and cancer free so I can watch them grow up and hopefully some day (in the far distant future) have children of their own. For me, adoption was the option that brought me so many blessings and filled my heart with the joy of finally becoming a mother.