Acceptance Not to Have Children

Salud física y sexual
símbolo de héroe

Karen Desjardins, age 69, is a survivor of four different cancers. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 36, colon cancer at age 44, ovarian cancer at age 47, ovarian cancer recurrence at age 49, breast cancer (primary, not a recurrence of the first one) at age 53, and metastatic breast cancer at age 65.

After she was diagnosed with her third cancer, Karen had genetic testing and found that she carries the BRCA-1 mutation, which greatly increases the risk of cancer. 

Married at age 34, Karen and her husband wanted children immediately, but she had a miscarriage, and not long after that, a breast cancer diagnosis. 

For more than 10 years, because her doctor advised her not to get pregnant to avoid a recurrence, Karen and her husband had to use contraception, despite desperately wanting children. Because of the effects of estrogen on breast cancer, she was unable to use birth control pills.  

After battling breast cancer, Karen and her husband made the difficult decision not to have children naturally and decided to adopt, first from Brazil (which resulted in a failed adoption), and then China, twice (both adoptions were cancelled because of new diagnoses).  

Karen was sad, angry, and frustrated, but she and her husband ultimately found peace, comfort, and family in each other and children who have come into their lives.

Karen shares her story to encourage other young survivors that there are ways to navigate family-building challenges, still find joy in unexpected places, and embrace the blessings life has to offer.  

Q: Did you or your medical team introduce the idea of fertility preservation? 

A: When I was diagnosed with my first cancer over 30 years ago, fertilidad preservation was not clinically available to cancer patients.

In theory, I could have tried to have a baby after having breast cancer, but I had known a few women who gave birth after having breast cancer and died leaving behind infants or young children.  

I got married at 34. I was diagnosed at age 36, so even in my support groups, younger women already had children.  

At the time, my doctor was not supportive of my husband and I trying to have a baby after my breast cancer treatment. I understand that he erred on the side of caution.

We are at a better point in time now. We know more about breast cancer, and women are taking charge of their bodies. Depending on their diagnosis, women can have babies after breast cancer. Fertility issues are now discussed.

Having children is a basic human desire. I've been in support groups where women are undergoing chemo and having a hard time, and they’ve said, “I'm just getting through this for my kids.” That always made me think, “Wow, I'm missing out on the best thing there is.”  

Q: At what point or how long after treatment, did you begin to think and talk about adoption? 

A: Not long after treatment, my husband and I decided adoption would be the route to building our family.  

We found a small agency that worked to place children from Brazil. The children we tried to adopt were ages 3 and 6. Because of our experience in Brazil where the children had severe attachment disorder, we decided to adopt from China, where the children to be adopted were 1 or 2 years old. 

Q: Did you need to divulge that you were a cancer survivor as part of the adoption processes for Brazil and China? 

A: Yes. But the agencies were happy that we wanted to adopt children, so the information was not a barrier to applying and being accepted to adopt.  

This may not be the case with international adoptions today, as now some countries will not allow patients with certain long-term diseases (like cancer) to adopt their children, or they may require a patient to be in remission for a certain number of years, among other requirements. Adoption social workers are up to date on international adoption policies and are a good resource for navigating this. 

Q: What did your adoption journeys from China look like?

A: From age 36 to 44, I was doing great and feeling great. The Chinese government knew I was a breast cancer survivor, and they were OK with that. 

My husband and I were ready to go fly with a group to China to get our baby.  

But then I was diagnosed with colon cancer, and the agency said we couldn’t adopt because I was headed into treatment and surgery.  

I missed a chemo treatment because I was so upset and crying hysterically after we found out the adoption was canceled. 

We were already grieving the loss of not having birthed children. Then, we were grieving the loss of the Brazilian children. Now, we were told we couldn’t go through with the adoption from China.  

My cancer was stage II. I recovered, and I was doing OK. We were told by the adoption agency to wait two years, so we did. 

Two years later, we were ready. There was a group going to Guangzhou. We attended meetings on culture and learned about food. We were happy and looking forward to finally being parents. The agency was very supportive.  

We were meeting other prospective parents and waiting for the photo of the baby to come in the mail. We had a name for her and clothes for her.  

But weeks before traveling to China, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  

I knew in my heart when I was lying in the hospital following my total hysterectomy (all internal female parts removed) that we would not be able to adopt. I wouldn’t allow anyone to visit me. I was devastated.  

My husband is a positive person. He told me we could try again.  

But when we contacted the agency, they asked us to come to Boston. We met with the head of the agency. She was extremely sympathetic but told us I had too high a risk of more cancer, and that they could not allow me to be the mother to a child who had already lost a birth mother.  

Q: How were able to let go of sadness and anger to reach a point of peace and acceptance in your life?

A: I was incredibly angry when I had my miscarriage and then five months later was diagnosed with cancer. I was angry when I was told I couldn’t have children.  

I punched holes in the wall. I broke a set of dishes. I was full of rage. 

At times, I was extremely sad. 

It was hard to be with friends who had children. I was envious, yet these were my friends. We planned to have children, and I couldn’t imagine a life without children. 

About 10 years ago when I was in my late 50s, I had some girlfriends over for dinner, and I said, “OK everybody, I’m going around the room, and I want you to answer honestly. If a baby came out of the sky and dropped into your lap, would you keep that baby? You would raise it. You would be the full-time mom.” 

Somebody said, “Yes.” Someone else said, “No way. I already did it. I’ve changed too many diapers.” 

I found myself saying, “No.” That was a real clue that I had crossed a threshold.

When I accepted that I would not have children, the anger just went away. I'm no longer angry. I do get sad sometimes because I am of the age when I might have become a grandmother. 

When I was 36, it was different. I didn't know anybody else in my situation who had a miscarriage, failed adoptions, and multiple cancers. I felt very alone.  

I’ve met so many cancer survivors. I've been in so many support groups. I've lost so many friends. I've been in so many campaigns for cancer awareness. It all has made me realize that I’m not alone. Everybody has hard stuff in their life. 

I see that everybody has problems. Whether they’ve lost a spouse, child, or parent: Life isn't easy.  

This helps with letting go of the anger and reaching acceptance. 

Now, I am happy that I'm alive and able to enjoy others’ babies and children. When I get the chance to be with kids, I just love spending time with them. 

Q: What did you do with the maternal instinct that you carried?

A: My brother has two daughters, and they spent time with us in the summer when they were younger. They’re in their late 20s now. They still plan outings with us, which we look forward to. I’m involved in their lives. Their mom is so gracious about letting us be involved.

Spending time with them fills my heart with joy.  

I also was a Girl Scout leader in my town for many years. As the Brownie leader, I made crafts with the girls and helped them learn life skills. We went camping. Working with them filled my heart. Being a Girl Scout leader was the best thing that could have happened to me.  

Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time and had to go through treatment. Chemo was difficult, and being a Girl Scout leader was too much for me to handle. I had to stop. We didn’t focus on my cancer as the reason I left because we didn’t want to upset the girls.

I joined Saratoga Mentoring, a Big Brother/Big Sister-type organization, and asked to be matched with Caitlin, a 13-year-old girl from my Girl Scout troop. During her middle school years, I was very involved in Caitlin’s life.

Caitlin and I would cook at my house. We’d go to the movies. She would come over and help decorate my Christmas tree. Christmas was a hard time for me since I always imagined having a family. Caitlin is 27 now, and we still go to the beach every summer. We text and keep in touch on social media.  

Q: What advice would you give to other colorectal cancer survivors who may not have had the option to preserve fertility or adopt? 

A: There are so many children in the world who need love and attention. I get so filled with joy when I talk about my nieces, my years as a Girl Scout leader, or being a mentor to Caitlin. 

Volunteer in your community. Look within your community for organizations where you can help children that may not have parents involved. Consider foster care or becoming a CASA volunteer. 

Alternatively, spend time with other couples who don’t have children. We have quite a few friends who don’t have children.  

We’ve realized that life goes on. We've discovered that life offers countless opportunities and fulfilling experiences even without parenthood.   

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