Pregnancy and Cancer…Impossible choices my mother made


I can only imagine the thoughts my mother had while she was pregnant with me. My family was very close mouthed about her even with me, and I was only able to glean bits and pieces of history about her or her life. We are talking about the late 40s when, if you talked at all about cancer it was in a whisper “Shhhh don’t tell anyone, she has cancer!”

From the way the story goes, she, for whatever reason after my sister was born, was told she would probably never have any more children. My sister was an only child from 1940 to 1945. At that time my mother realized that once again she was pregnant. I was on the way. She was 39. Two months after my birth, she was 40.

There was a problem. Somewhere along the line, she discovered a lump in her breast. She was pregnant. She had a lump. This was 1946. According to today’s rates, a woman in her 30’s has a 1 in 229 chance of developing breast cancer during the next ten years. Have the rates increased in sixty years? That’s a 0.4% chance if my figures are right. It happened to her.

There was very little she could do.  Maybe she could have a  radical mastectomy using ether as an anesthetic. I have been unable to find information on the effects of ether on a pregnant woman or her baby, but the effects on any patient were sometimes not good either. I don’t know what the medical establishment would have done for her then. Would they have refused until I was delivered? Would they have taken the chance?  Could she have had an abortion to save her own life? I don’t know. Abortion was illegal. I don’t know if there were exceptions to the law in 1946 or not.

I wish there were a way to go back in time to be there when she was going through all this. There isn’t.

She delivered me and had her operation. From what I understand, I was kept by my mother’s sister next door while she recovered. Some time during that first year I returned to my mother’s care. She was well enough to ride in the car with me, my sister, my cousin, two aunts, and my father all the way to California and back when my aunt returned home after nursing her through the operation and recovery.

Some time before I was two,  I have been told that she bent over to pick me up and had a horrific pain in her back. The cancer had spread to her bones. She lived another two years or so, dying in April two months before my fourth birthday. She was forty two.

To discover that one is pregnant is, in general, a very happy experience for many married women or unmarried women who intentionally get pregnant. I like to think that my mother very much wanted me to exist once she found out I was on the way. It is very difficult for me to comprehend her decisions sixty years ago. When she discovered the lump, from what I understand, she put off going to the doctor. When she did finally go, the doctor assured her that there was nothing to worry about. Did she agree with him? I’ll never know. Did she want to know anything different? I’ll never know. I do know that the same aunt came back once again to Illinois and took care of her those last two years.

I only had one opportunity to ask my aunt questions sometime in my early 30s. When she talked about Dr. Malcom, who was my mother’s doctor, she still blamed him for her beloved sister’s death. She said very little, but even after thirty years, I still remember the hate of that man in her voice and the pain she was feeling even talking about my mother. She never realized, and I didn’t say, that I was interpreting her reaction as having preferred my mother to live rather than me.

Being pregnant and having cancer at the same time must be a special kind of hell on earth. The questions that a woman has to face are monumental. Should I continue with the pregnancy? Should I have an abortion? Should I have chemo while I’m pregnant? Should I wait? Is it known yet what future effects the chemo might have on my child or on me? Will I live long enough for this chid to remember me as her mother? Will my husband love this child or will he resent it for all her life for his losing his wife? What effect will losing me have on my baby?

I have a cousin who survived breast cancer about four years ago. I’m not sure exactly what year it was since I deliberately avoid thinking of the year when I hear news like that. I never say anything like, “Oh, it’s 2007. My cousin was diagnosed with cancer this year.” I think when I was in her home last year she said something about having survived three years with no sign of its return. She was looking forward to the fifth year. I think if a woman survives that long, the likelihood of the cancer returning is very small.

Her breast cancer still has not returned. Instead, she now has an aggressive form of leukemia. In some women, the chemo and radiation received to stop the breast cancer are responsible. She had the option of checking herself into the hospital and undergoing very aggressive chemo. It’s spring. She was told she would not be able to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. She would not be able to be around any living plants. She would be in isolation.

She checked herself back out of the hospital the next day. She said no. She wanted to finish the rest of her life surrounded by her family. It’s springtime. She wants to be around the flowers she loves and to watch all the birds in her back yard. She didn’t like the odds of a successful survival being only 40 % or the possibility of the leukemia not returning of only 15%.

It is not for anyone else to question any mother who is pregnant and has cancer. The current legislature is trying to pass laws prohibiting abortion once again even if it means the life of the mother. It is impossible to choose. No other human being should criticize any woman’s choice in a matter such as this. No other human being has the right to tell the woman what to do. She can only listen to her inner voice and make the best choice she thinks is available. Namaste. Attic Annie

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