In April 2005, I was diagnosed with cancer.
It was just two weeks after the birth of my ninth baby, and days after my youngest brother’s death in a car accident. I stopped breastfeeding immediately as I needed many tests including an MRI and CT scan, the latter of which required the ingestion of radioactive material. What’s more, chemotherapy was next to come. A mother simply couldn’t nurse with those toxins rushing through her body.
Immediately upon weaning, I experienced breast engorgement, mastitis, then a severe systemic, yeast infection from the antibiotics prescribed for the mastitis. I had an allergic reaction to the CT dye. I also felt relentless mental anguish of not being able to nourish and bond with this baby the way I had the other eight. I felt guilty. I worried that she might grow up without me. I was exhausted from birth, from tending to a newborn, from dealing with grief. I was uncertain of my own life and future.
But the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back of my emotions came when my husband and I were sitting in the oncologist’s office, after a tests had been completed, while my mind was spinning with the diagnosis, treatment plan and clinical trial options. The oncologist ended his discussion of my future by saying, “Now before we start, we need to get you on birth control because you absolutely must not get pregnant.”
A pregnancy, the doctor explained, would hamper my progress, my prognosis and the ultimate outcome, which was a nice way of saying that my life depended on it not happening.
“We practice Natural Family Planning,” I remember offering weakly.
The doctor kindly stated that chemotherapy would wreak havoc on my system. I had at least six months of rigorous treatment ahead of me. The symptoms of ovulation could not be relied upon. Sometimes chemotherapy pushes a woman into early menopause. Other times her cycle simply becomes erratic and irregular, making determination of fertility signs difficult. I couldn’t afford to make a mistake reading my signs. I was told that if people used NFP during cancer treatment, they usually also used a “back up”.
Suddenly this became clear. At one of the weakest points of my physical and emotional life I was going to be morally challenged too. Herein lay David’s and my “difficult choice”: Would we choose to be fully Catholic and reject artificial birth control, or choose to make an exception for ourselves?
As the oncologist delivered his birth control recommendation David and I looked at each other. We simultaneously but quietly vetoed the idea. I think the doctor was surprised, but he was very respectful. I suspect he thought we’d be back soon, asking for a prescription.
Some Catholics counseled that our situation was “different”. “You have a serious reason to avoid a pregnancy,” they said, “You can’t be expected to give up relations too. And besides you HAVE been open to life.” Others said, “God will understand birth control is necessary in this one exceptional case. You need the closeness that sex involves to get you through this crisis.” One medical professional even told me, “Priests live an entirely different life. They can’t understand the pressures of married life. God will understand.”
I appreciated the empathy and the genuine concern behind the words, but I knew in my heart that I could not follow something I knew not to be true. If artificial birth control was ok for me it would ok for another exception, and then another, and then, of course for anyone at all. We made the difficult choice: we would stay the course.
Perhaps you think that a two week post- partum, exhausted and sick woman does not have sex as a priority on her mind. You are right. But if you were diagnosed with a life-threatening disease and you thought that you might die, you would likely begin to yearn for the love, reassurance and intimacy that the marital act provides. The thought of the possibility of never having that again was terrifying to me.
Sometimes my mind would wander. What if I died? What if my husband remarried? What if his new wife were better, prettier, holier than me? She would raise my kids. She would have the normal relationship with my husband that I craved. As I grew bloated from treatment, as my hair fell out, I continued to feel ugly and depressed. How could he still love me? Stay with me? Would he change his mind? I was normally reflective, but this crisis threw me deeper and deeper into introspection and speculation of scenarios that “might be”. I was tired, sick, crabby and sad most of the time. I felt I had nothing to offer my husband. I longed for the closeness we shared before this crisis. I was tempted severely to throw in the towel, to go back on our decision.
In my husband’s mind, however, the matter was settled. We would get through this cancer trial and all it entailed and look forward to a normal relationship again. He set about doing practical things-arranging for the meals, which volunteers offered, to be delivered. He cleaned the house after he arrived home from work. He played with the children. He gave me the shots I needed after treatment, and listened to me complain. He brought me ice cream. He lifted my spirits.
Several weeks into this routine, I contacted the Pope Paul VI Institute, and with the help of a very patient nurse, Margaret, I learned the nuances of interpreting fertility signs in a situation such as mine. I still wanted to leave abstinence behind. My plan was to learn this and then talk to David about using the ultra-vigilant NFP approach. Ultimately, however, David and I decided we didn’t want to take any chances. He took me in his arms. “Six months will be over before you know it,” he said. We would continue with the most conservative route. I surrendered. Finally, we were both on board with complete abstinence.
I can’t say it was smooth sailing from that moment on. I was tempted with thoughts of despair often. I stopped into the Adoration chapel one afternoon and knelt there in tears, not knowing what to say. I was just sitting there, helpless, and mentally repeating, “Please help me. Please show me what to do. Please make me well. Please take care of my family.” I was overwhelmed with fear of dying, full of my own lack of faith, and uncertain how to proceed even until the next day.
Suddenly, I felt deep warmth within my soul. I felt Jesus saying directly to my heart, “You are not alone. I am with you.” Then I suddenly KNEW that not only was Jesus there with me during the ordeal of my cancer experience, like a husband might sit with his wife during labor, but He willingly took on the sufferings I was experiencing, from the needles in the arm, to the nausea, to the uncertainty, the aloneness, the mental torment. He chose to suffer with me and for me. I also got the profound feeling that my suffering — indeed all suffering — was an invitation to participate in the redemption of the cross. He was asking me to trust Him. Renewed in soul, I left the chapel in wonder and awe, and pondering God’s great mercy and love.
Six months later, after twelve grueling treatments I was pronounced ‘cancer-free’. For several more months pregnancy was strongly contraindicated, as my system was still full of powerful toxins. I was grateful for the strength and leadership of my husband during this time. We continued our abstinence commitment until the prescribed time period was up.
Having been given a clean slate, David took me across the country to a spa in beautiful Rancho Mirage, California. He spoiled me by providing the means for a mud bath, therapeutic lymphatic massage and some time to sleep, lounge and swim. We played golf together for the first time in years. We came home refreshed, invigorated and with our relationship renewed. Our life slowly resumed to a “new normal”, and now today we look back on the cancer experience as just a blip on the screen, an experience that was extremely challenging but thankfully in the past. We are happy we made the decision we did.
I believe God gave David and me that time for productive soul-searching and deep spiritual bonding together. God offered us a chance to definitively choose Him , to grow in maturity and be strengthened through the myriad ways that suffering does.
Today I also look at Catholic couples who struggle with the Catholic teaching on birth control and who feel tempted to think that artificial contraception might be the answer. I want to encourage them: Be strong. Stay true to your faith. You can do this! Even in exceptional situations, make the right choice, even if it is the difficult one. God is with you each step of the way, more than you can understand. Trust Him. Blessings will follow.
What was your difficult choice? How has it changed you? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org