One of the hardest parts of the first meeting with my oncology team wasn’t learning that I had a huge tumor or that I needed chemo, surgery, more chemo, and radiation. It was when I was told I had to wean my 10.5-month-old baby girl from breastfeeding so they could start chemo immediately. Now that all of the brutal physical treatments are over, weaning still stands as one of the hardest parts of cancer.
Having cancer as a young adult includes nuisances that give the experience a uniquely awful experience. Careers are disrupted. Kids are often involved and they need extra care, both physically and emotionally, which leaves parents drained from cancer even more drained from trying oh-so-hard to make sure the kids feel as normal as possible. Finances, precarious for most young adults before cancer, can become an abomination. I experienced all of these, but having children during cancer was the most difficult aspect.
I don’t advertise my breastfeeding opinions too much since it’s such a touchy subject and moms are often made to feel like failures if they don’t succeed, but for me and my two children, breastfeeding wasn’t optional. I was going to make it happen.
Part of my determination came from my belief (and scientific proof) in the superiority of mother’s milk. Another part came from economics– we were broke then like we’re broke now, and feeding your kid for free is pretty appealing when you’re broke. Also, breastfeeding is perfect for lazy people and I’m lazy. When you breastfeed, there are no bottles to wash and dry. No pouring and stirring or lugging liquids around. Just pop the baby on the boob and he’s good to go.
When my son was born six and a half years ago, sticking to the plan was hard. And not just a little hard. It was so hard that I called random ladies at lactation help lines sobbing for advice. My son and I had latch problems and thrush. My nipples cracked and bled, a situation that made each and every feeding session begin with excruciating pain. We went to lactation consultants from Weymouth to Newton hoping for the magic advice that would make it all better.
And it did get better… slowly. At about 7 weeks post-partum, I realized we both had breastfeeding down pretty good. At that point, I felt like I had accomplished one of the most important things I’d ever done in my life. And I still feel that way.
In Jan. 2012, my daughter was born. This time, I was more relaxed about everything, including breastfeeding. Maybe the baby sensed this because she came out of the womb and into the world a true breastfeeding champ. Her 6 lb. birthweight–the result of being born three weeks before her due date– shot up quickly and she was soon one of the rolliest-polliest babies I’d ever seen.
I loved breastfeeding. After I was apart from my babies, I knew we could reconnect through that primordial, sacred bond that exists only between mother and child.
So when the news came that Baby G would have to be weaned–not even slowly, as recommended–but ASAP, I was so sad and so worried. I had planned to nurse her until she was 2, the age recommended by the World Health Organization, and was looking forward to sharing our special bond for many more months.
Weaning ended up being much smoother than I dreamed possible. She took to the bottle easily. But that didn’t change how I felt. I felt like cancer took away part of my mothering experience because, well, it did. Not long after I weaned her, I’d see pregnant women or moms of babies, and I was so envious that they could be moms (presumably) without having to deal with cancer.
Still to this day, I feel resentful at times that I had to wean her because of cancer, though I’m mostly at peace with our current life. Baby G is now Toddler G and I’m convinced she wouldn’t be as gregarious and outgoing if she hadn’t been weaned and forced to adapt to the varied babysitters and situations thrust upon her as mom went through treatment.
But there are still moments when I glimpse a newborn at the store, or see a photo on a wall, and I have to turn my head. I ache for a baby to have to myself and raise outside the shadow of disease. I ache to breastfeed that baby until we decide it’s time to stop. But cancer took away that option when it left us with serious debt owed to the hospital, mortgage company, utilities, and student loans. Having another baby now would be foolish.
There is a silver lining in all of this. One of my best friends, Sheryl, is a professional photographer. When G was a newborn, Sheryl came to our home and documented us as we bonded through breastfeeding. And a week and a half after I was diagnosed, Sheryl came again to document our family and one of the last breastfeeding sessions G and I shared.
I realized as I was looking through these photos that even though I probably won’t have another baby to cradle, I’ll forever have some of the most precious moments in my life documented thanks to my dear friend.