Childlessness and cancer.
How do you cope with having two of life’s biggest challenges thrown at you and what does it take to thrive after them?
If someone doesn’t have children by choice it can be quite a different concept to someone who would like them but can’t have them, yet or ever. However, the outcome is technically the same at that moment in time – both currently live childfree.
Likewise, if you’re in remission from cancer, it is a different thing to being ‘all clear’ or cured but the outcome is technically also the same – you are currently living cancer-free.
That the definitions for both these groups are emotionally charged is no surprise – being defined as one or another in either group creates both tension at times but also identity, and can impact on how you see and place yourself within the world around you.
So what happens if you’re in both of these groups? Where to place yourself in a world that loves to define and label, for better or for worse?
Cancer often reduces choices – you can’t choose your timetable of care easily, nor all your treatment options (though they may be presented as choices), nor can you control very much at the time of illness. So when it’s over, choice and control seemingly returned, it’s a shock to learn that there are new sets of decisions and choices to be made.
Indeed life after cancer is proven to be at times more complex than during it; living with a different kind of body, post-traumatic stress or anxiety of recurrence all while trying to live your life guilt-free again, get back to work and be the person you were aware of before. The overwhelming sense of wanting purpose is never far from your mind.
To have a cancer experience at a child-bearing age adds another complex element to the story. With over 30,000 people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s receiving a cancer diagnosis every year in the UK alone this number is not insignificant and to support the equally growing surviving population we know it’s an important topic of conversation.
For the many who would like the chance to have a family, cancer often changes that chance – either taking it away completely or risking it significantly. And what does that do to that person’s sense of recovery, where they might otherwise have been able to move forward with a less complicated path to navigate?
My own experience of not being able to have children (I have no doubt that if we’re labeling it, it would be childless as opposed to childfree) after cancer isn’t free from baggage. Pregnancy loss as a result of cancer, cancer itself, IVF, further pregnancy losses and a scuppered surrogacy attempt all led to where I find myself now; in a place of absolute surrender to the situation that I’m in. Whilst I’m not in it alone – my husband, in particular, experienced all this too of course – it has certainly at times been the most isolating set of experiences. Even though my personal experience of the events of the last 6 years may be unusual, they’re not totally unfamiliar to those who hold scars from loss and unexpected change, from grief and challenge.
Many in the cancer community describe how their family story (regards children, as opposed to other types of family members) was the hardest chapter of their experience. I asked some of my community what their thoughts were on this and the range of responses shows the level of complexity experienced. I share these example here with their permission:
This is hard – I have hopes of having children as I haven’t been told I can’t [but] I’m equally torn between feeling desperate to start a family and terrified to do so.
Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma (ACC) survivor, 31
I have realised that it is and always will be a regret and sadness that I am childless, and I’m not sure what I call myself but I just say I couldn’t have kids and I’m OK with it now, it’s a fact, not a judgment anymore.
Ovarian cancer survivor, 52
Now, I’m leaning heavily towards channeling my want of being a mum or mother differently. Being a guide is something I can do whilst maintaining the distance I need to have the space to maintain my own health
Breast cancer survivor, 29
Don’t get me wrong, this paints a picture of a tough situation but I asked a tough question. I know these people, and many others, who are equally thriving despite these quandaries. They may not always be and feel defined by this particular aspect of their post-cancer life, but it is an undoubtedly hard part to come to terms with.
They want to feel empowered and strong, but potentially whilst your body is still healing your mind takes longer to catch up. They want to feel a part of their old lives again but also move forward with confidence and compassion for the new way they see themselves. Many would also like to start or complete their families and this becomes a major part of their recovery story.
It struck me that TLFW tag line is something we in the cancer world can take forward too – we need our tribe, to know we’re not alone; we need to feel safe, in order to be honest in our vulnerabilities; and we want to be strong and tough whilst being compassionate and kind.
So what does it take to thrive after cancer and childlessness? These vary from person to person of course but overall, these very things from the tagline too – support, understanding, honesty and compassion for oneself, and from others.
The service I run provides a space for people to have open and honest conversations about life after cancer, including (but not exclusive to) fertility, children, and family discussions. We talk about what we did in our days, months and years after cancer was part of our lives. We talk abut different techniques that help and support our emotional and physical state. We talk about diets, exercise, mindfulness, CT scans, books we’re reading, places we go, dog walking, cake, Prosecco, and Gin.
I set up the community and coaching service as an antidote to the messages we’re bombarded with on being positive and grateful after cancer when you feel anything but and as a safe space to enable people to confide, they still hold fear and anxiety, which is both normal and OK. I set it up to provide a hub of learning and support from a coaching perspective having experienced the gap in finding focus and tailored support to move from being ill to well to happy.
I’m pleased that coaching after cancer is gaining traction in the health world too, with charities and other services picking up on this being an essential part of emotional support and rehabilitation in the months and years after treatment has ended.
Having a community around you who understands what you’ve experienced is important to your sense of identity – just as tlfw provides a community for a specific group, after cancer it can be important to find the tribe you feel comfortable also – cancer-related or not.
So if you’ve had an experience of cancer, and whether childfree, childless or with children, know that there is support for you to move forward from the experience, whichever definition you are part of.