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Woman ruminating on fertility issues after cancer treatment next to her sleeping partner

Coping with the Fear of Not Having Children after Cancer

Reading time | 5 mins
Anna Crollman explains how surviving breast cancer changed her perception of the importance of having children. 


It was the summer, my husband and I had recently married, and we were excited to begin a new chapter: starting a family.

Motherhood served as the compass for my life for as long as I could remember. I always loved children and I dedicated my education and my first career to bettering the lives of young ones. These activities and passions moved me towards my goal of motherhood.

Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 27.

Life as we knew it was ripped from our hands. My diagnosis and impending treatment put our plans of starting a family in immediate jeopardy.

Facing loss and grief

My diagnosis left me devastated. I was suddenly fighting for my life, and the motherhood goals on which I based my entire being and self-worth were wrenched from me in an instant.

I couldn’t shake the grief surrounding the impending loss of my fertility.

I grieved for the life I had planned and the dreams I was forced to put on hold. I was reeling. How could I define myself without the future we’d planned waiting for us around the corner?

Luckily, my doctors recognized the urgency of my fertility concerns and guided us through fertility preservation options. We chose to freeze embryos. It was expensive, but we were able to proceed thanks to a gift from my grandmother.

Making it through IVF treatments

Those two weeks of IVF hormone shots and harvesting and fertilizing embryos were absolute hell. My heart raced each day waiting for the lab to call with a report on our embryos.

I knew the statistics. I knew we’d be lucky to end up with a few fertilized and acceptable embryos. I knew that we had about a one in five chance of ending up with a healthy, full-term baby in a single IVF cycle.

It broke my heart when the doctors said only three embryos made it. Those embryos represented all the hope I had for our future family. But each also brought a sense of comfort and security for the assurance of our someday family.

A year in limbo

The next year was filled with grief, sadness, anger, and jealousy. Everyone around us seemed to be moving forward. They were getting pregnant, having babies, and planning for the future. We were held back and left behind.

As much as I wanted to be happy for them, it was soul-crushing. The unfairness of my cancer diagnosis and subsequent life changes brought me so much anger.

As I examined my anger, I realized it was rooted in fear.

Who was I without the ability to have children? Would my marriage sustain? How would I find purpose in life without the goal of motherhood driving me forward?

Changing my perspective

I wish I could say I had a grand epiphany or a magic moment that helped me move forward from this discomfort, yet the truth is far from it.

I did realize that I was caught up in grieving my future as a mother: what I couldn’t have and what was lacking. I was missing out on opportunities to live and thrive.

I began journaling regularly. It helped and I continued to build my blog. I found ways to give back to the breast cancer community. And I slowly took back control of my life.

Learning to love myself

Little by little, I began to define myself as a leader, a writer, an advocate, and a community-builder.

It was through this transformation that I came to love myself on a deeper level. I was so much more than a woman that couldn’t have children. I was still worthy!

I gradually stopped thinking about babies nonstop. Instead, I began dedicating that time and emotion to rediscovering myself, bonding with my husband, and fostering my passions. We made time to travel. We built two businesses from the ground up and we redefined our goals as a couple.

Redefining success — and myself

As I grew emotionally and professionally, I also redefined my meaning of success. And it was no longer limited to my ability to become a mother.

I still wanted a family, but I began to see the future much differently.

Maybe it would take many years. Maybe we would adopt. Maybe we would use a surrogate. I knew that I would be a mother someday, even if it was not how I originally imagined it.

I was truly happy and fulfilled for many years without motherhood as my driving force.

Now I sit here reflecting on the past four years of thriving, waiting, and growing… and I just gave birth to a healthy son this year.

It’s been a long road to this point, filled with pain, two pregnancy losses, and countless obstacles. I now know that I will be a better mother because of what I went through.

I no longer define myself by my ability to carry or raise a child.

Tips for coping with the stresses of starting a family after cancer

Here are a few key things that worked for me as I navigated this process:

  • Journal or document your feelings. Getting your fears and frustration out on paper can help you to process your feelings and let go.
  • Give yourself a timeline for revisiting family planning. It could be 6 months or 5 years. Having a timeline may help you feel more comfortable with the delay.
  • Consider talking to a professional. A therapist or medical provider who specializes in family planning may help guide your emotions and family planning decisions.
  • Explore new interests and hobbies. Finding new passions can be a much needed distraction and may lead to more fulfillment in your life.
  • Invest in yourself. Making time for self-care is essential. Sometimes it may involve a bath or a massage. Other times it may be skipping a baby shower that you know will leave you raw and emotionally drained.
  • Show yourself grace and patience. You’re going through a lot. It’s OK to have peaks and valleys of emotions.

I’m a stronger and more confident woman after surviving cancer. I’ve impacted the world in many ways. Motherhood will just be another amazing word I can add to the terms that define me.

The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for the evaluation, management, or treatment of any condition.

NPS-US-NP-00561 JANUARY 2020