Growing a Baby After a Tumor

This post was originally published on this site

“It’s surprisingly hard to kill a person. They taught us that in med school.” That’s what my father, a retired physician, had said when my doctors found the first growth. The other doctors batted around words like malignant and aggressive. But they also used words like treatable and curable.

It was lymphoma. Which, if you have to have a cancer, turns out to be a relatively good one to have. I responded to treatment and within six months, there was no evidence of disease. It took a year for my body to recover. My psyche took longer.

When they found the second growth, they used words like geriatric and high-risk. Most often, though, they used the word miracle.

And it was. Of course it was. I was euphoric about the pregnancy… until I wasn’t. To me, this growth, this mass, was indistinguishable from the last one. Again I had to stop to catch my breath halfway up a flight of stairs. Again my pockets were filled with cellophane-encased saltines and breath mints. My skin itched. My bones ached. I broke down in tears daily.

Had I spent all that time fighting for this life only to give it away? Was this thing I was growing, like its predecessor, trying to kill me? Could I love it? “Him, not it,” I constantly corrected myself.

I could barely wait to be free of it, to start healing, to be single occupancy again. As it steadily increased in size, it dawned on me that this growth, like the one before it, would have to be eradicated from my body. Worse, there was no pleasant way to do so. I resented it.

Him, rather.

If I spoke such words out loud, I was met with scorn and judgment. Horror, even. So I stopped talking about it. I stopped talking about most things, actually. Which was why my therapist felt we should start meeting twice a week.

“You’re being triggered a thousand times a day.” Her words sank into my gut like body blows. “Your body thinks it’s dying.”

“I’m not supposed to get angry at a tiny fetus,” I said. “No one ever expected me to love my tumor. I want this kid, but I don’t trust him.” How do you trust someone you don’t know? And I’m terrified he’ll never know me.

After the C-section, they placed a shar-pei puppy of a kid on my chest. I was a mom. For the first time, I could love it. Him. Forgiveness and gratitude cleansed away my fear and uncertainty. In that instant I knew I would do anything to stay in the world for him, with him. I whispered my promise into his tiny perfect ear, as unexpected tears pooled in mine.

And then they took him from me. He had low blood sugar. An infection. Respiration issues. He was in the NICU two floors down while I was pinned to a hospital bed by pain, fear and a catheter.

So I decided not to love him. Not until I knew he would live. When I had made my promise, I had assumed it was an agreement. But like most of the responsibilities of early parenthood, the commitment had been one-sided.

As I looked at my weeping, broken husband, I hated myself for putting him through another hardship. I hated our son for deceiving us. If we lost this child, I was afraid we would lose our marriage, too. We’d aced “in sickness and in health” but we’d both hoped the bulk of “for worse” was behind us.

When I finally saw him again, he looked more like Hell Boy than my baby, his arm encased in gauze and red sports wraps to contain the myriad wires and tubing beneath. His cheek was obscured with the tape that held his feeding tube. His heels were covered in more pieces of tape — their edges caked with dried blood. The nurse shooed my hands away from the acrylic box they kept him in, as if to say this was not my baby.

Only one thing was mine: guilt. How audacious I had been! My fat cells must have harbored leftover toxic chemicals from the chemo that damaged the child. Or, worse, I had somehow leaked a cancerous cell through the umbilical cord into his growing body. As if surviving cancer hadn’t been enough, I had dared to ask the universe for a child, too.

My husband insisted on being there for every feeding. I went, too. We’d scrub our hands and arms, then fidget in the tight space between bassinets, watching the baby’s swaddled form until a nurse gave us clearance to touch him. Then my husband would slip his finger through the wires and tubes into the baby’s only accessible hand and smile.

I was jealous of my husband’s quiet, unquestionable love for the baby even as I struggled to remain unmoved. When the baby’s bundled form was placed in my lap, I would hold him and attempt to give him a bottle. I even pulled out a breast now and again. I aped the motions of what I thought a woman in my situation should do.

But just like the microscopic mass of cells this baby had once been, and the tumor before him, something not yet detectable was growing inside my body. It caused my breath to catch and my heart to race. It made my skin flush and my body ache, too.

The fear that my cancer would return never dissipated. Instead, my fear of a world without me was replaced with something darker — I feared a world without him. In my living room, finally able to hold my baby free from wires and monitors, I pulled his peaceful form to my chest. I lowered my forehead to his and breathed deeply, his scent no longer tainted with disinfectant nor rubbing alcohol. He was pure, perfect and finally mine.