Early on in my breast cancer diagnosis, I learned cancer treatments can cause infertility. Chemotherapy can throw a young woman into a permanent state of menopause, subsequently causing infertility. Tamoxifen, an oral tablet usually prescribed for five years for those with an estrogen sensitive cancer (meaning estrogen causes your cancer to grow) is known to harm the fetus. Doctors and the National Cancer Institute advise against pregnancy while taking the drug.
Yet again, cancer forced me to look at my future and ask: Am I willing to take the gamble that I will be fertile when I conclude all my cancer treatments at age 37? For some women who regain fertility it can take six months to two years. By then, I will be 39. Is that when I want to start having children at 39? Or will I invest in my future as a biological mom by choosing a sperm donor literally from a catalog and freezing eggs or embryos? The latter option was the last thing I thought I would ever be thinking about this year or any year. With resoluteness, I chose to not let cancer eliminate any possibilities for my future, including that dream I had of being a mom before the age of 39, even if it meant using a surrogate for my frozen embryos.
I scheduled a phone consult with Dr. Wendy Change of the Southern California Reproductive Center (SCRC). Serendipitously, when I spoke to Dr. Chang I was on day two of my period. After she explained my risk factors and the process, she informed me I would have to start my hormone injections to stimulate the follicles on my ovaries the next day or not at all given the tight timeframe before my double-mastectomy. At 5 p.m. on a Tuesday, I made yet another monumental decision catalyzed by cancer and called my dear friend Jen for my first of many rides to the fertility clinic.
We arrived for my 7 am ultrasound and blood work. By 10 am I was in the business manager's office with Jen learning of the enormous costs associated with fertility preservation. While Jen discussed whether there was financial aid available for cancer patients, I was on the phone with my American Express card asking for a rather large limit increase. We walked out of the clinic with my first round of hormone injections as well as the significant financial investment in my future as a mommy charged to my AMEX, earning me what I've dubbed "fertility miles."
It took me about a week of hormone injections to decide if I wanted to freeze eggs or embryos. Embryos have a much higher likelihood of producing a child later in life than frozen eggs alone. I was hoping for a ½ and ½ scenario so one day if I do get married, my husband and I can try my eggs first and if I'm lucky, one might fertilize.
Dr. Chang's staff gave me a package of information for the California Cryobank, an apparently renowned sperm bank. It felt so unnatural and weird, especially the first time you look at the catalog. I had to narrow down my first choices from hundreds of donors which as I was told "change frequently due to supply and demand." I was so overwhelmed at first, but comforted by the fact the sperm bank only accepted 1% of all applicants. They did more screenings on these donors than a government employee gets when vying for a top secret security clearance.
I first narrowed down donor potentials from a catalog that gave only the basic stats on the donors: height, weight, nationality, basic features, profession and whether or not it was known if the donors' sperm had produced a child for someone already. (Yes, there is a sibling registry, thank God, so my child one day will hopefully not accidentally marry their sibling.) There are also six different pieces of data that a donor may have provided: a baby picture, audio interview, personality test, a written essay and staff impressions. Every donor is required to fill out a very extensive profile that includes the medical history of extended family on both their mother's and father's side of the family.
I started my search with darker skinned donors of ethnic backgrounds that I was naturally attracted to and ruled out those who did not complete all six possible pieces of information. I miraculously narrowed it down to six potential donors. The sperm bank then conducted what is called a photo matching service where I supplied a photo and they sync up your features with the donors; I guess to make sure you aesthetically could create a decent looking child together. They scored each one on attractiveness and how close of a match we were. My six prospects were between 8.5 matching and 7.0. Most people don't ever score higher than an 8.5 so I began purchasing some of the available reports in order of my preference (yes, every additional report that is not in the catalog is provided for a fee). Cancer costs at this point are out of control.
I first used their written essays to narrow the choices down further. I thought if I could somehow hear their voice in the written word, looking at their handwriting, I may find something intuitively that worked for me. After connecting with two out of the six essays, I then ordered their full package: a $70 investment per donor.
It was between a tall Italian or a shorter Spanish, French, Mexican. I didn't know it was possible to fall in love with DNA but I did. I am in love with the short Spanish, French, Mexican medical student with tall uncles on both sides of the family. Since he was only 5'8" himself, I wanted to make sure there was a chance for some height, given I am only 5'3". He seemed very smart (high SAT scores!) with the most spotless medical history of any donor I read about. His essay revealed similar values to mine and his responses so fully matched my take on life. In fact, they made me want to meet him, though I knew it wasn't possible.
Turns out he was a competitive baseball player (I was the first girl to play baseball in an all boys league when I was 12) and his younger sister a dancer (I switched from sports to performance dance in college). When choosing someone's DNA, it became very important to me that athleticism and rhythm ran in the family!
In the end, I literally was so in love with my sperm choice that I wanted to have a baby right away. Of course, that sentiment may have been hormonally induced because there were 31 eggs growing inside of me. My sister said, "You have one egg for every year you've been alive!" Sometimes, she notices the funniest things.
Up until my scheduled egg retrieval, I loved the process my body was going through. I administered the hormone injections into my belly day and night. The increased hormonal stimulation at first made me very happy, sensual and more womanly than I had ever felt before. I've always had a lean physique and before cancer had some typical body image issues. I thought I would hate the "fat" part of getting pregnant. But as my belly expanded from my ovaries growing and the constipation they neglected to tell me about in advance, I could stand sideways and kind of look pregnant. For the first time, I declared, "I'm going to be so cute pregnant!" (Yeah, clearly the body image issues disappear with cancer.)
I could literally feel life force growing inside my body and it brought me great comfort, joy and hope for my future. I could see light coming back to my eyes, the dark cancer window shade lifting up long enough for me to visualize a little girl with long, dark curly hair dancing in the middle of the family room with me, her mommy.