My Choiceless Choice: a Perspective on Infertility

Headshot Photo of Ovarian Cancer Survivor Nora

Nora McMahon is a former semi-professional dancer, basketball player, snowboarder, distance runner, weight-lifter, cyclist and capoeirista. She was raised in the Philadelphia area and has lived in San Francisco and Chicago. Her passions include street art, photography, music, dogs, travel and food. She is the co-founder of Cancer Grad, an organization that focuses on reframing the cancer narrative.

“After reviewing the images from your CT scan, I’m confident that what I’m looking at is ovarian cancer. We’ll get you scheduled for surgery ASAP. If it’s cancer, I recommend a total hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy. I’ll leave you and your husband alone to discuss whether you’d like to try and spare any eggs. I’ll be back in 10 minutes to see how you’d like to proceed.”

My husband Kevin and I sat gobsmacked in my new gyn-oncologist’s consultation room. In one fell swoop, we learned that I had ovarian cancer, would need surgery (and probably chemo), and had a 10 minute window to decide on the possibility of a future family. This wasn’t a normal Tuesday.

For two months prior to this fateful meeting, I had been through multiple doctor’s visits, ultrasounds, and a CT Scan to figure out why I had no appetite and felt constantly exhausted and bloated. I couldn’t process the news that I had cancer and that I was going to have to undergo a life-altering surgery that would thrust me into early menopause and leave me infertile.

To be fair, Kevin and I had never planned on having children of our own. We had discussed that we’d be open to the idea of raising our own family, but we had never felt compelled to act on it. He is adopted, and we had agreed that if we ever heard that ticking clock, we’d look into adoption agencies. Despite multiple people telling me that I’d hear my biological clock tick-tocking sometime in my 30’s, I never heard it. The decision to be childfree was our choice.

But is a choice still a choice when it is taken away?

So much of our identity as women is centered around our bodies and our roles - the role of motherhood being one of the most central. As women, we are more than the sum of our parts and the roles we take on. All mothers identify as women, but not all women identify as mothers- which is why I found myself confused when I started grieving the loss of my ability to bear children. I had made the choice to not become a mom, so why did I feel so shattered?

My ovarian cancer diagnosis really challenged the notion of how I identified myself, and left me feeling incredibly vulnerable. Was I less of a woman now that I didn’t have a womb? What if Kevin decided he wanted his own children and left me for another woman who could provide that? How would my friends and peers with children relate to me? How would I relate to them? Was I broken? Was I enough of a woman?

After sitting with my own thoughts (and some therapy), I realized that I wasn’t entirely grieving my ability to birth children, but more so the loss of my power of choice in the matter. I have incredible compassion for the women whose choices vaporize before them- whether that choice is to birth their own children or something else. It is important to take time to grieve these losses, but it is just as important to adjust our sails and harness the power of the storms that come our way.

A large part of my healing process has been realizing that while I will never know the experience of pregnancy, I still have the choice to raise children in this beautiful world on my own terms. I am an awesome auntie. I donate my time and money to schools and programs that benefit at risk youth. I have the choice to adopt or foster children if I ever desire to raise children of my own. I have nannied and mentored and helped raised other people’s children for most of my life.

These are the ways that I am contributing to raising children in this world. Through my ovarian cancer diagnosis, I have come to realize that we can all still be part of the village in whichever roles we choose, despite our abilities to bear children.