Motherhood and Cancer

baby-1512011_960_720Many parents grapple with the idea that they will not always be there for their children. I did not think I would face this question when my daughter Aye was 16 months old and I not even 30.

Two years ago, I was in my office on a Monday afternoon, busy and stressed as usual. I had just resigned from my job the week before. My phone rang: a number I didn’t recognize.

“Hi, Joanna, this is Dr. Lesch. Remember when I said this might be cancer?”

I didn’t.

“Well, it looks like it’s GTD.”

What does that mean?

“You need to make an appointment with an oncologist as soon as possible.”


“Before you see them you need a CT scan with contrast. You have to pick up the contrast today to drink it…” She was talking so quickly about so many things I’ve never heard of. My head was spinning. I hung up and burst into tears. Gripped with fear, I asked myself Why me?

I grew up comfortably, in a white upper middle class family in the suburbs. I did not know how to deal with trauma. In contrast, my husband, who grew up and trained as a doctor in Mali, had experienced loss both at home at on the job. He met me that afternoon at my office to help me sort out the next steps and make some phone calls.

We met with the oncologist later that week. I was fairly composed during the whole consultation, even when the question of a hysterectomy came up. But when I went back out to the waiting room and saw all of the other women there, most of them much older than I was, and a few wearing hats to cover their bald heads, I started to cry.

I was diagnosed with cancer, and the biggest weight in my chest was the loss of any future biological children.

I worried I hadn’t gotten closure after having Aye, not realizing she might be my last pregnancy, my last infant. Would I have treasured each milestone more knowing it was the last experience with that moment?

That afternoon I was admitted to the hospital. The biopsy surgery took a turn for the worse and I ended up in the ICU. After multiple transfusions and blood products, they moved me up to recovery. My mom brought Aye to see me the next day, when I still had half a dozen lines in my arms and supplemental oxygen flowing through nasal cannula. Aye was terrified. Worse, for weeks after the surgery I couldn’t lift her up or squeeze her very tightly.

I wonder what she will remember of these events or if she will ask questions when she is older. I wonder how I will explain it to her.

During those weeks of recovery, we relocated to Seattle, which had been the plan when I resigned from my job the week before receiving my diagnosis. If there is ever a city to have cancer in, it’s Seattle. I met with my new oncologist and began treatment about a week after our arrival. The toxic combination of five cytocidal drugs was effective—after only four courses of chemotherapy I was cancer-free.

Ringing the bell with Aye on the gynecological oncology floor of UWMC was a happy day that marked the beginning of my journey as a cancer survivor.

At two years past chemo, I’m now able to consider trying for another child. After meeting with fertility specialists it is clear it might be possible, but there would be some serious risks to both the baby and me. I ask myself if it is worth the risk. I have this beautiful, smart three-year-old who needs my love and devotion. But this desire to have more kids is so powerful—deep in my heart I want to carry another pregnancy, deliver a baby, and breastfeed; I want to create a little brother or sister for Aye.

Some women who desire to have biological children do not have the opportunity at all. I feel guilty that I pine away for something I already have. Is it just that biological, maternal drive? Or bitterness over the loss of the choice itself? I always thought I’d have two or three children, so having one seems so unfamiliar to me even though that is who I am: a mother of one child. Our little family is healthy and whole.

As a cancer survivor, I feel anxiety much more acutely than before. I now know that impossible-seeming statistics can become your reality in the blink of an eye. My fears also stem from a “mama-bear” instinct, turned on overdrive to protect Aye. Jennifer Senior writes in All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting that this intense love we feel for our children is inextricably linked to vulnerability and fear—that our hearts are out “running around inside someone else’s body.” Recently, after a death in the family, Aye began to ask deep questions about death and dying. We were sitting one evening and she said, “I don’t want anyone to take you away, Mama.” My mind went instantly to that point two years ago when I was almost taken away. I gave her a hug and said, “I’m right here with you sweet pea, and I love you very much.”

joanna family


Joanna lives in Seattle, WA with her husband of seven years and their three-year-old daughter. She works for the University of Washington Department of Global Health while attending school to obtain a Master of Business Administration (MBA). When she is not at her desk or in the classroom, she is cooking, writing, reading or playing with Aye.



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