Guest Blog Post: Coping with the Loss of Fertility After Cancer
Today’s guest blog post comes from Angelique Caba, LCSW, who discusses different ways of coping with fertility loss due to cancer.
For people coping with a cancer diagnosis, managing treatment and its side effects is oftentimes only the beginning. Cancer inevitably weaves itself into all other facets of one's life beyond treatment—school, career, finances, and even family planning. For people with cancer, coping with the loss of fertility can seem secondary. But for many, it is viewed as something everlasting, staying with them long after there is no longer evidence of the disease. It is a reminder that, “Yes, cancer happened to me.”
Like cancer, the loss of fertility can touch every aspect of one's life—from one's own self-esteem, to relationships with friends or loved ones. It can even affect future relationships that have yet to develop. Although having children may not be in everyone's future regardless of cancer, for some, coping with the lack of choice is what's most difficult.
As a professional oncology worker at CancerCare, I've often heard clients say, “I lost my ability to have children before I even knew I wanted them.” Unfortunately, this reality is not at all uncommon. The pressure to raise a family, inconspicuous or overt, can be enormous. What you once imagined your life would look like now looks quite different.
In my work with young adults coping with cancer or caregiving for a partner or spouse, I've found that it can be helpful to impart to clients that, as overwhelming as this new normal may seem, there are ways to cope with the feelings that may arise.
Let yourself feel There is no right or wrong way to feel. One thing is certain though: bottling it up will only ensure that at some point these feelings will burst free. More than likely it will happen at an unexpected moment—perhaps among friends, at work, or in a crowded train car. Allow yourself time to grieve the loss and feel the sadness, anger, and guilt that may come. Find new and unique ways to express these feelings: scream into a pillow or punch a punching bag to express anger, or keep a journal. Speaking with a professional oncology social worker, such as the ones at CancerCare (www.cancercare.org), who provide free services to help patients and caregivers manage the emotional, practical, and financial concerns of cancer, can also be tremendously helpful.
Become educated Uncertainty of the future and what it has to offer is often a catalyst for stress. Talk to your healthcare team about your diagnosis, treatment, and post-treatment care. You can ask to be connected with a fertility specialist who can help answer questions regarding fertility options and give clarity on alternatives such as adoption. Although planning for every conceivable outcome is impossible, having this knowledge can give you a peace of mind the uncertainty did not.
The importance of communication The loss of fertility can take a toll on relationships. The need to steer clear of certain functions (ie, baby showers, birthdays, family dinners) can become primal, often causing unspoken resentment or feelings of inadequacy. Give yourself permission to decline these invitations or at the very least to have a good cry afterward. If friends and family have been kept in the dark, it may be helpful to educate them about what you have been going through. Remember that this is an opportunity to offer insight and explain how certain comments, though innocent and unintentional, may be insensitive. Doing so can help friends and family learn how to offer support during the tough times. Staying connected in this way to family and friends who can offer their love and support can be monumentally healing.
Teamwork If you are in a relationship, help support one another. The loss of fertility is a challenging situation that can bring on many ups and downs that can change from day to day. This means that partners and spouses will not always feel the same feelings at the same time. This is normal! Working as a team to find ways of staying connected and supporting one another—go for a walk, hold hands, or make and share in a meal together—is important.
Get support Remember that you are not alone! For some, the loss of fertility may seem secondary to cancer, but for others, it is just as devastating. At times these losses go unnoticed, which only adds to the feelings of shame and isolation. As difficult as this is to remember, there are people out there who want to help. Finding somewhere to talk with people who understand, whether through friends, family, professional counseling, or support groups, can help you feel less alone and build hope for the future that lies ahead.
A version of this article originally appeared on Oncology Nurse Advisor.