My Right Tit Is Rocking It

This was published here: http://www.chelseyhauge.com/blog/my-right-tit-is-rocking-it, (I don’t often blog here anymore because it feels like this chapter of my life is mostly closed, but of course there are always remnants and threads) however it seems relevant to this blog too so reposting. 

 

My body is working even better than its supposed to: for nineteen days, I have sustained my newborn baby girl, and in those nineteen days, she has been nourished from only one breast. And she’s getting bigger and bigger.  And I am having an out-of-this-world celebratory experience of my body’s capacity, and it is amazing.

I only heard negative things about breastfeeding before I did it myself. My friends assured me “it’s so hard” and “no one tells you how much it hurts” and “you will definitely have problems” and “it’s ok to supplement.”  I expected to have problems. I expected it to hurt. I expected to need to supplement. After all, I only have one breast and my breasts have a history of causing really awful trauma.

In 2013, cancer was diagnosed in my left breast and chemo and mastectomy followed. The cancer left a hole in my heart and permanently marked body. Though the empty space was filled with silicone it’s unresponsive and unfeeling. There are no milk ducts. For so long, this implant has shaped my relationship with both breasts, and my right breast- which is still intact- has been distant. Ongoing screening means that my right breast is always suspect. It could still kill me. Because it feels like my body failed wildly, horribly, and with no warning, I often tense in the wait for bad news from medical professionals about my breasts.

But with breast feeding, there has not yet been bad news. At the lactation visits, I tensed to hear she wasn’t big enough. From the pediatrician, I tensed to hear the milk wasn’t enough. But instead, all I’ve heard is that she’s growing. She’s growing because I’m feeding her, with my right breast. I would be lying if I said it didn’t hurt at first. For a day or two, my nipple bled, I got very tense before every feed because I knew it would hurt and my mother fed the baby with a syringe while I pumped. I cursed my cancer and wished I had a second tit so my poor bloody nipple could catch a break.

I didn’t ever want to unilaterally breastfeed. Nor did I imagine that unilateral breastfeeding would result in a magical, tremendous, healing experience. I had no idea I would experience sustaining life from my breast as the opposite of cancer, during which time I was thrust into treatment in order to save myself from my own mutating cells, who had it out to kill me.

Breastfeeding didn’t seem like it would result in healing awesomeness, or in power, or in joy. But breastfeeding this tiny human with one tit is a super power. I almost cannot believe that my body- me, my body!- is making up for the absence of my left breast by making enough milk with one breast. I don’t even need it! It doesn’t even matter that I don’t have a second breast. I’d forgotten about this right breast, in all the hullaballoo about the left breast and its too-early departure from this world. It is amazing to feel so hopeful about this part of my body, especially in contrast to feeling so hopeless. In retrospect, it feels like it took forever to be here: I’ve definitely told cancer-friends that I’d never trust my breasts again, and I’ve often complained about how I didn’t magically and instantly feel better even years after my cancer diagnosis. Breastfeeding Mica is so hopeful it literally makes my heart ache.  It reminds me loudly and clearly that I am healthy, and I am ok, and I am even better than ok. I think about the people cancer has stolen from me, and I think about my friends still getting treatment, and I know that exactly what we all deserve is to feel this hopeful about our bodies and to trust this deeply in our bodies’ capacities. I am celebrating the possibility and capability of my body to nourish another, and it is glorious.

grateful to say goodbye

It’s time to say goodbye, cancer. I’m grateful to say goodbye. So hopeful to not think about you anymore. So delighted to be walking on this world without you as my companion. A little sad that you’ve clung so tightly to my dear friends, and that they’re not saying goodbye with me.

I thought about going on retreat about you, cancer. My friends were going. They made me want to go because I could hardly imagine the three of them up there, without me, sharing their little hearts and making pretty things. Without me.

But the thing is, I did that. I don’t have a whole wad of tangled cancer questions anymore. It f*cking sucked. It changed me and my life and my relationships and my future. I might not ever accept that- it might never be OK, but I can live side by side with those realities without really thinking about them too often.

My friends are on retreat right now. In a beautiful place, making beautiful things, being beautiful together even though its hard as sh*t. And you know what? I don’t even miss being there. I mean of course I miss these dear people and I wish we all lived on a commune and had a herd of kittens to tend to, and that we had a barn converted into an art studio and a gaggle of children to play in the sprinklers while we sat at wooden tables painted bright colors and talked about life and sipped water with mint leaves floating in it (or alternatively, wine). But, I don’t feel like I should even be there, now, on retreat talking about cancer. I’m delighted they are there. I wish them all the healing wonders and support. I want them to feel whole and alive and brilliant. And I want to revel in their whole-ness, alive-ness, and brilliance. But I don’t wanna be there while they scrub away all the dead sh*t, the toxic crap stuck inside the big, gaping cancer wound.

So they are doing cancer-crap without me, and I’m doing the rest of life without them. I wish to all the goddesses we could all do the rest of life. We all deserve to be wholly, completely, and totally well. I’m still hoping that we are all gonna get that, that it’s just gonna take some of us a little longer than others (which, for the record, sucks). But for me, I’m just trying to convince myself I do get to enjoy this life where I am healthy, I do get to revel in feeling well, I can let go of some of the terribly, weighty guilt about being well. I do, I do, I do. Sometimes it feels so unfair that I get to have all this abundance, all this hope, all these suprising, exciting moments that remind me I am well. It feels like if we can’t all have them, I shouldn’t have them either. But then again, I remind myself I’ve only got this one precious life, and what is true for me is true for me and I get to have it all- even as I mourn that not all of us get to look into the truth and see health reflected back.

So I think that’s great and I think it means…. Peace out, cancer. See ya on the flip side? And by that I mean never.

I may very occasionally write here, but not often. Though many of you have encouraged me to keep writing, and have reminded me this is a blog about so much more than cancer, the truth is, the title of this blog is Chels in Cancerland, and right now, I’m just Chels in the Land of the World, and I want it to stay that way.

So if you wanna follow my writing, check it out here: www.chelseyhauge.com/blog

 

 

Goodbye & Heart~forward

Dear Liz,

The first time we met in person, I was astonished because you knew my name as soon as I walked in the door. We’d talked on the phone already. During our phone conversation about the young adult group at Callanish, you asked if I had any questions. I asked if it was OK if I wore a hat or a wig. You said I could wear whatever I wanted. It must have seemed like an odd question, but it was an important one to me. My hair had only fallen out a few days prior, and at the same time I was worried about people knowing I had cancer I was also worried about fitting in with the cancer kids and I thought that meant I had to go bald, even though that seemed totally terrifying. I was glad to have you reassure me that I could come as I pleased, with anything or everything or nothing on my head, and that people came all kinds of ways.

The second time we met I couldn’t quite figure out if you and Janie were the same person or two people or who was who. I didn’t want to ask, because this time you remembered my name and some details about me, and I didn’t want to seem silly not remembering which face belonged to which voice. I said something about how being young and having breast cancer f*cking sucked. You looked back at me with those deep and soulful eyes, and you told me you were in your late twenties when you were diagnosed with your first bout of cancer. Like me. Suddenly, you were credible. I know it was you, and not Janie, because your hair had the slightest tinge of red and your skin the unmistakable tone only a redhead bears. Like me. 

One time I came to Callanish to pick up one of the many items I had forgotten at Brew Creek. Janie was there, but by then I could distinguish you two. “Oh!” she cried, “you must go and show your stop motion worry dolly video to Liz! She was so sad to have missed it!” I thought it was kind of silly, this silly little stop motion I made with my little worry doll, among the trees and creeks at Brew Creek. But you were so excited, and we stood in the little kitchen and you wore a striped apron, and I handed you my cell phone and pressed play, and you watched intently and smiled really big. You loved it. The way you looked up at me when the little video finished told me so. You made me feel so visible.

Another time, I came to Callanish to make some art with Gretchen. It smelled divine. You were baking cookies. We were late, and you must have left for the ferry. But you left a little plate with freshly baked cookies on it for us.

There were so many sweet gestures like this. Cookies on a plate. Smiles after a video. A knowing look from one redhead to another. A nod.

When I heard you had been diagnosed yet again, I thought to myself what the fuck. Too much for one person. Too fucking much. I was angry because I’d been recently exposed to all those quacks who want to blame cancer on stress, or on limited personal work, or on not living life well. Fuck you all, I thought, here’s proof: someone who is so in touch with their heart and soul, she supports other people getting in touch with their heart and soul.

I saw you again, and I can’t recall when. Perhaps it was sometime about a year ago now, sometime last spring or in the early summer, while I was waiting for the babies to be born. You leaned against the counter as I poured a cup of tea, and you asked about them, about the surrogate, a sweet slow smile forming on your face when I reported back the latest news. It meant so much to me to hear your questions, to know that you remembered, to be acknowledged as an expectant mother even though my babies were growing in someone else’s uterus. It meant so much to me that even as though you faced your most serious cancer diagnosis yet, you still asked. It awed me.

I don’t really know what to say. When my friend Aimee forwarded me the email that didn’t show up in my inbox, I couldn’t quite believe it. I can’t imagine you not baking cookies and leaving them on countertops, or greeting me with a hug when I walk into Callanish. I didn’t know you well but I did spend some deep and heartfelt moments with you, and I sure felt the kindness and the sweet love vibes that you put out into the world. It seems so strange to know you’re not here anymore, to know you are, quite simply, gone. 

This heartbreak that fills my body is the hard part of being part of this community. Knowing you, knowing and loving people in a community that is by definition, made up of people wrestling with their mortality, a group of people who by definition, can’t all survive.

It seems like it all happened to quickly, Liz. Diagnosed again, and then hard, and then hopeful. Somewhere I read something you wrote, and I breathed a sigh of relief because you were hopeful, because it was working. But I guess it stopped working. And before I even knew your dear ones were holding vigil with you, you were gone. My heart felt like it was pulled from my chest. I wish I could have lit a candle, I wish I had known, I wish, I wish, I wish. Mostly I wish death wasn’t a think we all have to face. Or at least, I wish we could all face it together at the same time. But that isn’t how it works. 

But then I realized there’s not a rule about when you’re allowed to light a candle for someone.  So I lit a candle for you. You’re here, in the sweet flutter of leaves on breeze on this hot California afternoon. You’re here, all around, giving.

We are just so intensely fragile. Our bodies only here on this earth for a fraction of time. Here, and then gone. Our fragility is so striking. We try to ignore it, to pretend we don’t know we will expire, to go about our days as though we are as long lasting as our plastic water bottles. Our plastics will long outlive us. Today, we have all outlived you Liz, and that feels so unfair. They say you were in a state of utter grace, total love, of acceptance. I desperately wish you hadn’t had to accept this. But you did it anyway. What graciousness.

And so what? I want to live like this, graciously accepting that which is, finding peace and serenity even in the toughest of moments. Liz, you remind me to live with my heart forward. I’ve been thinking about standing up straighter lately, and how when I stand up straighter my heart is more forward and open, and I feel more open and raw and honest. So for you Liz, because of the way you lived your life, because of your sweet presence, I’m going to notice my posture. Heart forward. Shoulders back. Open, raw, honest. Wide open to the world, wide open to receive, wide open to give.

You will be so missed. My heart breaks for your children, for those who loved you, for the many who needed you. But I know they too, are resilient because of you, and I know you will surround them, wrap your arms around them, be present in the fluttering of leaves on the summer breeze.

Thank you for caring for me.

 

 

 

what now?

The last three years have taken me to places of sorrow, joy, desperation, fear, and love in ways so unexpected I may never make sense of them. Almost three years ago, I married Sam. Then I got breast cancer. Then I found out my fertility was ruined. Then I finished my Ph.D. Then I had twins by way of surrogate. Then I moved home to California.

None of these things were in my life plan, and tonight I find myself sitting in a hanging chair in the living room, staring up at three breast casts I made when I was in treatment as my baby falls asleep in my arms. I am staring at them, thinking about the life I thought I had, about the professor I thought I’d be, about the kind of family I envisioned and the sorts of things I imagined I would do for fun. I wish I had a control group for my life, so I could know how it might have been- but the fact of the matter is, I don’t have any of those things I thought I’d have.

I did not have my twins in my uterus, I do not have a professor job, and the life I am living does not even begin to reflect the life I always thought I’d have. That’s not to say its all bad, but it certainly isn’t what I planned for.

So I am staring up at these breast casts. They are sitting atop my bookshelf in a row. The first one is of my breasts before the mastectomy, and it was made by my friend CJ on the night of my Boob Going Away Party. Actually she made the third one in the row that night too, but the one on the left is the first one we made. I painted it blueish silverish whitish, and I pasted lines of my dissertation over the right breast and lines of my pathology reports on the left breast, and then I painted a human heart in the middle, with spidery veins that reach up and over the top of the bust.

The second breast cast, the one in the middle, was made while I still had an expander in, and you can really see the difference between my boobs. When you have a mastectomy, the doctor must remove a good portion of the skin, so the expander stretches what is left so there will be enough room for the implant. That one is painted purplish whitish greyish. I glued yards of purple yarn in swirly patterns around the expander boob, and that fake boob looks protected and taken care of and warm underneath all that yarn. There was a time right after my treatment was done, but before I finished all my surgeries, during which I was better at taking care of myself, better at being gentle with myself, and better at packing my day with warmth. This bust is from that time period.

And then there’s the third bust, which CJ made at that Boob Going Away Party. It was the really good one- she smoothed all the wrinkles and got the edges just right. I never painted that one because I wanted it to be perfect, and I was afraid of messing it up. It sits awkwardly at the end, as though I might return what once was if I can just muddle through the middle stages. It sits there unpainted, undone, a blank slate- some kind of representation of the girl I could have been.

Instead I sit in this swing, and I try to figure out what happened. My professional life is slowly disintegrating in front of me- so much so that I think often of what else I could do, how else I might be gainfully employed, other ways to make enough money to live the life I want to live. Though I have a Ph.D., it doesn’t seem as though I’ll be joining the tenure track anytime soon, despite the utter shock professors and administrators express upon hearing that I “haven’t been snapped up” as a leader in my field put it the other day. Then again, another said to me about the academic job market “it’s a mirage, and I wish I could fix it.” I smiled, because I’ve myself used those exact words to describe life after the day my Ph.D. was conferred.

I can only wonder, if I hadn’t gotten cancer…

Or maybe the universe has a divine plan for us all, and Professor isn’t mine. Do you believe that? Is there something we are each meant to do, and the world closes door after window after door, until there is nothing left, and you must walk the path you were meant for?

I applied to an art therapy graduate program the other day. Maybe I could do that. Everyone raises their eyebrows, asks me why I need another degree, tells me I have so much to offer, I should just use what I’ve got and do something artsy and beautiful and hopeful. But the thing is, I just don’t know how to do that and also make enough money to buy my babies formula. Maybe I missed the memo. How does one live a creative and enriching life, without insane stress related to money?

Maybe if I could be a therapist, and make art with people, then this life would be easier. But its all full of maybes, you know. Maybe this, maybe that. How badly I want a promise, something I can count on and be sure of, an absolute. Maybe I should go back to non-profit work, but I can barely swallow the thought of that many hours of heart-labour for such a whimsy salary. Of course, it would probably be more than I’m making now, but there wouldn’t be so much flexibility and it would mean saying goodbye forever to the academic pipe dream. This child sleeps on my chest, and I know I must figure this out soon, for she will have so many things she needs, and I expect myself to be able to be present for her and her sister without feeling tortured over my professional situation. And the question hangs, what now? What now, what now, what now?

And I wonder if I’m pining over a body I don’t have anymore, trying to fit myself into a bust that is not my size anymore, attempting to be someone I was never meant to be. I really am not sure. I have no idea how much is me, and how much is the job market, and how much is the universe, and how much is cancer fucking everything up, and how much is just how it would have turned out anyway. And really, how are we to know?

 

 

Slideshow or no slideshow?

I caused a major traffic jam in the stairway that leads up to yoga after class this week. After class, I let everyone else leave and then I ran downstairs and set up my red and black double wide in the tiny bottom space, and I raced back up to grab my twins. When I had both sleeping babies in my arms, I made my way back to the stairs, and I saw the havoc I’d caused. There were three mamas of babies younger than the twins on the stairs, all trying to get out. My stroller was at the bottom, blocking the door. And I was at the top. There was no way I could fit past all these mamas with eight week old babies and enormous diaper bags (what do they put in there? how do they fill them so full? I’m so confused and often find myself wondering what million critical items I have forgotten). Also, because my arms were filled with thirty pounds of sleeping infant, there was also no way I could reach and move the stroller without making these women topple. Yikes.

They needed so much direction. One couldn’t figure our how to open the door while holding her infant.  In my head I was shouting COME ON DON’T YOU SEE I’M HOLDING TWINS but out of my mouth I was saying, nicely, alright- you come up the stairs, you go down, can you move out the door- ok, just suck your stomach in so I can get by, here I’ll hold your baby (on top of my twins) ok, there you go, thank you…. As I finally got out the door, stroller and all, I thought… MY GAWD GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER YOU ONLY HAVE ONE BABY. In the midst of this crazy stairwell madness during which I was carrying someone else’s infant (basically I could never be octomom but I am capable of managing the absolute madness that triplets would be but only for twenty seconds) my iWatch started buzzing. And buzzing. And buzzing.

But what was I supposed to say– “Take your baby, b*tch, my oncologist is calling?” I mean they already look at me like I’ve got a second head.

So I ignored the call. But when I arrived to the bakery where I’d planned on meeting my two TAs to talk about our students, I regretted that move. I wished I’d said– “Oh, hold on, everybody wait on the stairwell- it’s my oncologist calling about my labs.”

I listened to the message she left instead, and my stomach fell out of my body and I had that weird feeling where it seems like everything is distorted and you’re being floated in a kind of spinny way across time-space, like you’re witnessing your body be in the world in the past and in the future at once, watching yourself try to stir your latte and look cool in real time. She said, “Chelsey, call me. We need to talk about your labs, some of the numbers need a conversation.”

Jeezus.

I called right away, voicemail. I called her nurses’ station. I called her office. I called the hospital. I left messages. I called my other oncologist, Dr. G., who’s supposed to get a copy of everything. She hand’t gotten the results yet and didn’t know what I was talking about. F*ck.

And so I ordered my almond milk latte and the world spun, and I felt that weird out of my body feeling that screamed, YOU MIGHT DIE REALLY SOON, because if she wanted to talk about my labs it could only mean, my cancer is back. And breast cancer that is back has no cure. And now I have twins and they’re going to grow up without a mama and Sam will be so freaked out to be a single dad and what colour should the handouts be at my funeral? 

I always go straight to the funeral programs, which should be printed on high-quality card stock, rainbow. Get all the colours, tops ten prints per colour, of course multiple shades of every colour (don’t try and print them in those boring rainbow primaries, people, we need at least four shades of each colour. Of course. Also glitter. Lotsa glitter).

I texted my cancer (YACN) friends. My safety-net-three, the ones who get it like no one else, the only people who really know that spinny-out-of-body-oh-my-mortality-feeling, the ones who know to remind me to listen to the playlist one of us made of songs we sing at the cancer group we go to (well, they still go, and I always wish I was going even though I’m so far away and so I just imagine myself there and that’s good enough). I said to them, “I was thinking about which order the music should go at my funeral- like should Sam play that maracas piece first or should Kate sing Breast Cancer Pink first? What do you think?”

Because obviously if my oncologist CALLS me out of the blue about lab results, my cancer is back. I didn’t even need to say it, they just knew. They knew I knew my cancer was back, they knew because they know if they got that voicemail, they’d know the same thing I knew.

These are literally the only people in the world who could respond, “Well do you really think Sam is gonna wanna play music at your funeral? Honest question.”

They didn’t say, “You’re not gonna die.” They didn’t say, “Don’t think about that.” They didn’t say, “Why are you thinking about that,” or “Stay positive” or even “I can’t go there.” They engaged. They said, “Do you really think he’d do that? Honestly.”

I said, “Huh. Yah I hadn’t really thought about how this could be hard for anyone but me. But maybe, yah. Maybe he wouldn’t want to.”

The hours passed. We texted.

Slideshow or no slideshow? I’m worried about those really cheesy transitions people add in between images. 

Definitely slideshow. Also maybe storytelling, and people writing down stories about me, for my kid. 

Not for me, said another. Just a few choice pics. 

This totally morbid conversation was so effing comforting. It’s hard to explain why it is comforting to talk about funeral details, but I was so relieved to have this group of young women actively engaging me over text message, about what our funerals would be like.

Finally she called.

“We need to talk about your estrogen levels. We thought we had suppressed your ovaries. But its not working. We don’t really know what to do about that. Perhaps we should switch your medication, but without any research evidence, we just need to talk about the options.”

WHAT?!?! WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY THAT ON YOUR VOICEMAIL!

At first all I could stutter out was… I’m so relieved you called, but so, I’m not dying?

I wasn’t dying.

Everything looked a little less sharp, a little lest grainy and high-contrasty. All of the sudden, we were only talking about hormonal therapy. My hormonal therapy isn’t working. Well that’s fine because I hate how my hormonal therapy is making me feel like sh*t.

A bunch of months ago, there was a big study and all of us youngish breast cancer people were changed from a medication that inhibits cancer from bonding with estrogen to a medication that shuts down our ovaries and a medication that is typically given to older women. Except this combination causes lots of pain in young women- pain to the tune of joints hurting too much to open baby bottles in the middle of the night. But it’s better. Except when it’s not, because your ovaries are working so hard the ovarian suppression doesn’t shut ’em down.

So. Now both my oncologists are talking. There’s multiple options, but I think I’ll probably just go back to the drug I used to be on. Because it’s easy. There’s much less pain. It’s the non-surgery option. It’s the “I want one more baby and I want a pregnancy” option. I haven’t heard back from her definitely, but I bet it’s the option my Vancouver oncologist, who I trust enough to follow (almost) blindly, will advise for me.

But this is what it’s like. That spinny-crazy-oh-my-god-my-mortality feeling? It’s what happens when cancer is back. Thankfully, that feeling was only with me for a matter of moments. But for others, for so many others, its permanent.

So tonight, I’m holding tightly to the fact me and my cancer besties are all OK. Five young women, four little girl-children, and more babies to come, I’m sure of it. We are ok. I am ok. I am not dying, and tonight, none of my cancerbesties are dying either.

Wait a sec, don’t speak too soon, one #cancerbestie said. But really, I texted back, you’re OK tonight. I’m OK tonight. Out babies are OK tonight. Yah, she responded. And I guess that’s all we got. 

So? The point is, whether you want a cheesy slideshow or not, or whether you want one but only without those horrible and even cheesier (if that’s possible) transitions, we’ve only got the present. This moment. Tonight. Tomorrow morning, maybe. Right now. And what we know right now, is that we don’t have to instruct our loved ones on the fact that we will turn over in our graves before we’ve even been buried if  we see them use those crappy transitions at our funeral slide-shows.

Slideshow or no slideshow, for now, we’re here. And all we know, is that we are here. Let us be here, let us be happy, let us be texting, let us be well. ❤

 

 

 

 

Multi-Colored Hair, a New Year, and Being Like All The Other Mamas. Except Not.

On New Years Day, 2014, I rubbed all the hair off my head while I sat in the bathtub of my Vancouver apartment, right after I got home from yoga where I had just made a new friend who would become a very close friend, because cancer. On New Years Day, 2015, I dyed my blondish hair growth that I’d already gotten dyed strawberry blonde with slightly oranger tones. On New Years Day, 2016, I held a baby in my lap and dyed my hair orange and red and purple and pink streaky stripes, and then I accidentally asked Sam to do the back with red instead of orange, so then I had to re-streak the sides with red too, and then I decided it was too much purple so I bleached and added more orange and pink, and I love the result even though the last bottle of bleach exploded and someone got on the kitchen ceiling. So how did you commemorate YOUR New Year? Because my hair- and my fingers and some splotches of the bathroom sink- are orange and red and pink and purple and it’s awesome.

New Years is awesome, but let’s be real: this one was also exhausting, and forced me to think about how tentative I (still) feel about future thinking, even as we sipped pear cider mixed with champagne and ate curried butternut squash soup and sang Raffi songs I apparently retained from my own childhood because I know all the words (what the hell? I don’t even know these songs, except I do). I was so tired I could only kick Sam in the shins when he wouldn’t wake up to feed the babies because he was so tired too, but dude, they were about to break into full-force screams if they had to wait more than four more seconds for the requisite cuddle and two ounces of milk.

Another thing about this New Years is that I’ve started it without any pain. A few days into our Mexico vacation, I just couldn’t take the joint pain anymore. My fingers could barely unscrew baby bottles at two am, and my elbows had that painful ringing in them that tells your brain you just hit your funny bone, except I hadn’t just hit my funny bone, and it didn’t go away, and it was because of this hormone blocker I’m taking that will, with any luck, destroy any cells that feel like morphing into cancer. So I emailed my oncologist. Hesitantly, because a few months ago I begged her to let me switch to the new drug, because it meant a couple more percents added to my survival odds. She was the hesitant one then, worrying about side effects and quality of life while I assured her I would be fine. And I have continued to report triumphantly “I’m fine! No pain!” over email since moving to California. When I saw her in December, she asked again about the pain. Again, I told her I was fine… and I chalked up my aching wrists to the babies, just like the mamas in my mama-baby yoga class do. We all have aching wrists. I’m one of them. We. It has nothing to do with cancer. She raised her eyebrows. I insisted the aches were new mom aches. She made me another appointment, and reminded me to email if anything changed.

All the new moms have aching wrists. I wore wrist braces to a dinner and another mama nodded to them and said, “carpal tunnel? I had it too.” The yoga teacher provides a stack of wrist support blocks, and hands them out regularly to mamas complaining of aching wrists. I was just another one of these women, and what a relief that was! A pain we all shared, something we could talk about, each one of us like the other, rolling our wrists and wondering if our babies would ever stop growing. I was just another mama with the same wrist pain, another mama complaining of lower back pain from carrying these infants that are SO HEAVY.

Cancer wasn’t even on the radar.

But then I googled. Always a bad idea. New mom wrist was related to hormonal shifts linked to breast feeding. But I have twins, I rationalized, so I’m holding them more, so even though I’m not breast feeding, I still have it. The niggling voice in the back echoed Dr. G.’s concerns about my hormone therapy, but it wasn’t until the pain spread to my fingers and elbows and knees and hips and ankles that I broke down and realized I wasn’t just like all the other moms. I could pretend, but my pain wouldn’t dissipate as the girls learned to hold their heads. I could pretend, but my hormonal shifts weren’t from breast feeding. I could pretend, but when opening bottles brought tears to my eyes and my favourite yoga poses became impossible, I had to tell her. I didn’t want to- I wanted to do whatever I could to stay alive for my babies. I wanted to stay on the drug, I wanted to not be afraid, I wanted to be alive without cancer, I wanted to do everything I could.

And guess what Dr. G. said?

Let’s take a drug holiday. We saved your life- let’s not ruin it with pain. It’s not dangerous to take a drug holiday for a couple weeks. How you feel, and how much you can do the things you love impact recurrence rates, too. 

And just like that, opening bottles doesn’t make me cry, my knees don’t creak like they’re ninety years old, my elbows aren’t screaming, and I can type without pain. It’s not dangerous, she said. It’s not dangerous. How you feel matters, she said. How I feel matters.

I can’t decide what to do about this blog. Shut it down, and leave cancer land? It seems like that will jinx me, and that only moments later, my cells will laugh and run amok and become deadly. Keep writing? But I don’t feel like I’m in cancer land most of the time. Sometimes it slams into me again, like it did with #newmomwrist. Err, #fuckyoucancerhormonetherapyjointpain. That’s how cancer is, I suppose. I’ll just dye my hair instead, and write randomly.

Happy New Year, people. Happy New Year.

Also PS: you people all saw this kick-ass video, right? 

 

 

Don’t shame me for having a surrogate.

Maybe you have been following the splashing surrogacy headlines in the last week, or maybe they were lost between Canada’s election (yay!) and the annual articles about not dressing your kid up in a racist costume. So let me give you a synopsis, from my perspective as the mama of 11-week-old twins born with a surrogate.

I am a young woman who had twin babies with a surrogate. I needed a surrogate because I was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 29, the same month I stopped taking birth control so I could get pregnant. I was most devastated that my fertility could be destroyed by chemo and that even after my treatment was done, ten years of hormone therapy would make it impossible to grow a baby while also protecting myself from any errant cancer cells.

We found our surrogate Angela through Canadian Fertility Consulting. She was ten years older than me, a childbirth educator, mother of three and advocate for women during their most vulnerable times- birth. She seemed like a pro. We paid her. We signed legal forms with her. We all saw a counsellor. We decided to transfer two embryos, because then we had a 60% success rate instead of a 50% success rate for any pregnancy, and because it was already so expensive, we might as well up our chances, right? We transferred one high quality embryo and one lower quality embryo. There was a 5-10% chance of twins. We got twins. We went to appointments sometimes and she always texted photos. We were so excited. We were stretched so thin for money and our families helped us afford the surrogacy. We spent a lot of time contemplating this arrangement, acknowledging our privilege, and thinking about what it meant for our pregnancy. Angela sent us adorable photos of herself as her belly grew. She carried them through to 37 weeks, which was a major feat, and delivered two healthy little girls- Luna Juliette and Sienna Skye. She continues to pump breast milk for them. We will always love her.

So, the story:

There was a woman from Idaho who decided to act as a surrogate. Apparently she did so multiple times, as many women do as far as I understand. The woman, Brooke, also had three sons of her own. She was most recently carrying a set of twins for a Spanish couple. While she was only days from delivery, she didn’t make it to her c-section, due to a placental eruption which is a rare condition that, undiagnosed, can lead to grave danger for the pregnant woman and the babies inside of her. Shortly thereafter, the woman died from this condition. The twins were briefly kept alive on life support, but neither survived. There is little mention of the intended parents in the articles that sensationalize this story. In a Huffington Post article, Mirah Riben (author of multiple articles in places like HuffPost and Dissident Voice) compares Brooke’s story to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ll get to why this is not a good comparison in a second. As I sifted through the articles, I read phrases like:

Biological colonialism happens in the USA, as well as in poorer nations. And as in those places, it can be deadly. 

and

In Atwood’s novel, which takes place “after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and blamed it on the Islamic fanatics,” becoming pregnant is the one thing the Handmaids can do to rescue themselves from death. Not so for today’s surrogates.

and

A recent tragic death of a surrogate mother …. underscores the ethical problem with asking women to serve as surrogates for non-medical reasons.

I read and I read, and I felt icky. I felt ashamed. I felt like I had participated in something bad. And then I realized that was the function of the language in the articles. Nowhere did I see the voices of surrogates or intended parents or babies born from surrogacy. Nowhere did I see my story. My story was one of total transformation- a relationship I will always treasure. Angela might not be my “friend” in the traditional sense, but she is someone I love, someone I respect, someone I will always hold dear. I like to think that it’s pretty fucking awesome that science can allow women to do shit like carry babies for each other. I mean really, how awesome is that? It’s a pretty radical notion that we might be able to share our bodies and our dreams with each other in order to create a world that feels more just, more hopeful, more magical. My world is certainly more just, more hopeful, and more magical because I have a baby sleeping on my chest and another sleeping on the couch next to me. I have those babies because of Angela. My surrogate.

The argument made by Riben isn’t unlike the arguments against surrogacy made by others writing on Brooke’s story: that surrogacy is bio-colonialism and enables the commodification of women’s bodies, especially poor women.* These arguments about Brooke’s surrogacy and death fail to account for the complexity of the situation and perhaps more gravely, fail to account for the intelligent, wild, hopeful, thinking, independent spirits and MINDS of everyone involved with Brooke’s surrogacy- including Brooke’s own ability to decide how to use her body. Brooke becomes a woman caught in patriarchy, a woman who needs taking care of. Now I am well aware of the classed dynamics of patriarchy, and of the possibility for harm. However- women need legal protection so they can use their bodies in ways they desire to, not outdated laws that dictate how they are allowed to use their bodies.

When told this way, surrogates become poor, incapable women who don’t know what’s best for them, who make decisions because they have no other choice, who succumb to the system and who would be better off with someone to contain their bodies, make choices for them, and keep them safe. I think that rather, we need a way to think about these relationships that allows for agentive action and thoughtful involvement on the part of the surrogate and also, a way to account for the ways in which class, gender, race, and sexuality structure all relationships in the world.

Of course we are not completely autonomous beings. We use language. We exist in racist, capitalist, colonial, patriarchy. But we resist, too. We organize. We teach and learn. We hold protests and refuse to go to Starbucks. Surrogates can- and do- resist racist, capitalist, colonial, patriarchy. We might even say that surrogacy- coming into relationship with people to change their intimate lives- is itself a way to resist racist, capitalist, colonial, patriarchy. Yah, yah, I know it’s not all unicorns pooping rainbows: I’m often the first to point out colonial tendencies. However- these blanket statements don’t help. We need a wider analytical lens to understand what’s going on with surrogacy, and power, and women’s bodies, and the desire to regulate what women can and cannot do with our bodies.

In these popular articles floating through mainstream media, people who pursue surrogacy to have a baby- called intended parents- become money-grubbing snobs who don’t want to stretch their flat tummies and instead pay some poor, unfortunate woman to do the dirty work of birthing their children. Intended parents are painted as wealthy folk participating in colonialism, keeping the wheels spinning on racist, capitalist, classist patriarchy. It’s not really useful to just call it that, though, is it? Does it give you a better idea of the people that surrogacy braids together, and their lived experiences? It’s not very ethnographic, is it? Rather, we need real description of real lives, we need to re-think why a writer could ever argue that someone else doesn’t deserve to figure out how to have children, in the most non normative ways. We need to consider the politics, toxins, and capitalist systems that cripple women’s bodies and reproductive systems (like cancer!), and lead them to reach out to other women (like surrogates!) in order to have a baby.

So when I read that surrogacy is the real-life manifestation of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, and that “becoming pregnant is the one thing the Handmaids can do to rescue themselves from death. Not so for today’s surrogates” I have to wonder, has this writer done ANY research? Does she really think that we are living in Atwood’s novel, and that if Angela hadn’t been my surrogate she would have been sent away to die? Perhaps she isn’t trying to be literal: maybe Atwood’s novel is a warning, and maybe surrogates would live a metaphorical death by capitalist/patriarchy if they weren’t growing babies for a little bit of money. But really? Really? There’s lots of other ways to make twenty grand (or in the US, even a hundred grand) faster and cheaper and easier than growing a baby and pushing it out your vagina for someone else.

What we did was not dirty. Our surrogate wasn’t forced to bear Luna and Sienna. We- me, Sam, Angela, and her hubby- entered into an agreement. They selflessly cared for our babies in utero. I won’t speak for her, but I only ever understood Angela to love being pregnant and believe in her power to help another woman become a mama.

I should not feel shamed for growing my babies this way. In fact, I am proud. I am proud I pursued these little girls until they came into the world. I am proud I didn’t stop when they told me chemo would destroy my fertility and that my uterus would be hostile for ten years. I am proud I worked through my grief about not being able to have a pregnancy and found Angela. I am proud I shared both the joy of knowing babies were coming and the sadness that I was not carrying them with her. I am proud that she held them inside for 37 weeks. I am proud of these tiny little people, who sleep so profoundly on my chest but somehow are instantly awake the second I try to put them down. I am proud I had twins with a surrogate.

But you know what I’m ashamed of? I’m ashamed to live in a world where women are vilified for their choices, instead of respected and given the appropriate supports to live their lives as they wish. I’m ashamed that the climate is so hostile that many women involved in surrogacy feel like they cannot share their stories and feelings for fear of being attacked. I’m ashamed we can’t have a more careful, respectful conversation about how to hold these women carefully and closely, how to honour their hearts and connect them with parents who will love and cherish their gift.

So yah. Don’t shame me for having a surrogate. Just don’t.

*I’m certain there will be others applying a racialized and transnational lens to the relationships manifest through surrogacy- especially those who work with surrogates internationally– I cannot speak to these relationships. I can speak to surrogacy arrangements between two North American women- me and my surrogate.