Parenting After Cancer: Hope Lives On

Parenting After Cancer: Hope Lives On

Don S. Dizon, MD, FACP, FASCO

Mar 28, 2019

Originally published in "Discussions with Don S. Dizon" on The Oncologist.

One of the organizations I am truly honored to be a part of is the Young Survival Coalition—an organization meant to provide community for women diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 40. Each year they gather for the YSC Summit, and this year, I spoke to this incredible group as part of a panel alongside Susan Love and Angel Rodriguez. My talk was on approaching life after breast cancer, and it was meant to be an overview of critical issues and needs in this group, as well as a guide to resources—a lot to do in 20 minutes, for sure.

The night before the presentation, I had dinner with a few of my colleagues from YSC and talk turned to parenthood. I was saddened to hear that even today, some of the women had only the briefest recollections that fertility preservation was discussed with them prior to treatment. For some, parenthood had become a door a long closed. They had moved on to their personal “new normal,” yet some still mourned their loss of fertility.

The next day, as I stood in front of the group giving this particular talk, I knew this was not (for the most part) an audience of women facing a new diagnosis. Instead, they had already started, continued, or even completed  breast cancer treatment. For many, the time to discuss their options for fertility preservation had passed, and I wanted to provide hope. So for the first time in a talk like this, I said, “If you want to be a parent, realize it’s possible, even if our treatments have negatively impacted your fertility. I should know—my kids were conceived through gestational surrogacy (GS).”

I always wanted kids, never imagined not wanting them, but I worried it was not going to be possible, because I am gay. I worried that I wouldn’t find a partner who shared my dream. Then I met my partner, Henry. Early on in our relationship we shared our desire to have kids, what we would name them if we had a girl (Isabelle) or a boy (Harrison). We talked how we would raise our kids and what was important to each of us.

After a few years together, Henry and I explored how we would become parents. That’s how we learned about GS. For our first pregnancy, my sister quickly agreed to donate her eggs (she knew how much I wanted kids, and for that, I will be forever grateful). We found our surrogate online—a kind and generous woman who had served as a surrogate in the past who had found surrogacy personally fulfilling.  

I wish I could say it was easy. It wasn’t. For us, there were lawyers, contracts, provision of life insurance, review of medical policies, review of state laws about parental rights and getting us both listed on our birth certificate. For my sister, ovarian stimulation, collecting eggs, and then more contracts to terminate her rights to her own eggs. IVF. More contracts related to the storage of embryos we did not use. Because our surrogate didn’t live near us, we missed out on the OB visits; instead, we got ultrasounds by e-mail.

I privately worried that something would go wrong, and I didn’t want to set up the baby’s room, afraid to tempt fate. I also worried about bonding: would I love this baby as my own and would she love us as her two dads? Henry, I think, saw my fear, but he grabbed my hand and guided me through the preparations to welcome this new life into ours.

I still remember the day we got the phone call: “Come quickly—I’m in labor.” I remember feeling like I was moving so slowly, like life was in slow motion. I called Henry; we packed the car and drove many miles, racing to the hospital, hoping we would make it in time for the delivery. We didn’t.

The nurses smiled as we approached, and one of them raised our brand new baby to the window. I still remember the two of us looking at her for the first time. “Isabelle,” we said. Henry cried and so did I.

I became Isabelle’s dad the moment I looked at her. Indeed, I fell in love with her immediately. She is our daughter and we are her dads. We now have our Isabelle, our Harrison, and our Sophia. Our family is just what I had dreamed of, and nothing could be more beautiful.

I surprised myself at the YSC Summit by mentioning my family’s story. The obstacles I faced in becoming a parent were not quite the same as the ones faced by these young breast cancer survivors and co-survivors, but I certainly understood that feeling of wanting children but fearing it wouldn’t happen. Cancer can take so much from a person, and from the ones they love. For those who always dreamed of having children, options exist, and with options, so does hope. In sharing this, I want to show young men and women with cancer (and their providers) one option they may not have considered—but mostly, I want to help them look beyond their cancer to the rest of their lives, and to see what is possible.

*This blog post is dedicated to the village that helped us have our kids: Precy, Julie, Erica, and Dina. All parts of our family, permanently.



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