Cancer, Infertility, Motherhood: I Never Knew How Much I Wanted to Have Children Until Someone Told Me I Couldn’t

Sara Sibley

It’s amazing how fast your life can change.

I went from young, happy, and healthy to going through a traumatic and transformative health crisis, then simultaneously and suddenly discovering that I might not be able to have children. Had it not been for my family and loved ones, good doctors, and an unexpected level of my own willpower (and supportive amounts of Sauvignon Blanc), I might not be sharing my story.

My world changed one day in 2013. I was sitting on the couch after a long day at work. When I went to adjust my bra, I inadvertently grazed a small lump on my breast. I didn’t give it much thought because it was that time of the month and besides…it’s not like it could have been anything serious, right?

I was busy with work, short on sick time, and quite honestly, I didn’t feel like spending the money for the insurance copayment. I decided to wait until my annual exam in a few months. After about a week or so, I decided to feel the spot again to make sure it was gone. It wasn’t. In fact, it felt bigger to me.  I made the call to my OB/GYN and was seen the same day. Shortly after the breast exam, which confirmed there was a lump, I was sent to get an ultrasound as a precaution. A few days later I got a phone call indicating the lump would require a biopsy to determine the next steps.  Everyone I talked to reassured me that it “was nothing” and to “stop worrying.”

After the ultrasound, I was sitting at my desk when my surgeon called. As usual, I was multi-tasking and continued to work. The surgeon explained she was calling with the results of my biopsy and asked if I was in a place that I could speak. I was in the middle of an email, but I told her to go ahead. She paused for an uncomfortable amount of time and her next sentence was one I will never forget.

She said, “I’m very surprised but this is, in fact, breast cancer.”

She continued to speak but I no longer heard a word she was saying. My world stopped at the word cancer. She asked me to call her back with my mother on the line and that’s when I really began to panic. My hands were shaking so badly that I couldn’t select my own mother’s phone number. My heart was beating painfully hard and tears began streaming down my face.

I froze. Not once had I considered my fertility in all of this, even though my sisters confirmed afterward that the doctor had quickly mentioned that it was a risk during our consult. I guess the human brain can only retain so much and the human heart can only handle so much tragedy at one time.

I had to tell my mother that her youngest of three daughters had cancer. I don’t know which was worse, getting the news or having to share it with the person I love the most. I was 33 years old with no family history of breast cancer and the diagnosis came as a total shock to all of us.

The second hardest day of my life was meeting with the oncologist because it was then that I learned my surgical path would be a double mastectomy. I learned chemotherapy was no longer a possibility but a reality due to my triple-negative diagnosis. There are moments when you know unequivocally that your life will be divided into two distinct chapters: Before and After.  I knew this was one of those moments.  My sisters tell me that I just sat there staring into space with tears rolling down my cheeks.  I still don’t remember much of that conversation.

I had shared my diagnosis with some of my coworkers at the time. I was talking to one a few days after I received the news and she said, “I’m so sorry that on top of all of this you won’t be able to have kids after chemo.” I froze. Not once had I considered my fertility in all of this, even though my sisters confirmed afterward that the doctor had quickly mentioned that it was a risk during our consult. I guess the human brain can only retain so much and the human heart can only handle so much tragedy at one time. I got a referral that day for a fertility specialist to find out my options.   

It’s important to mention that I wasn’t a woman who spent my whole life waiting to get pregnant or mentally decorating nurseries in my daydreams.  I envisioned having children someday, but it wasn’t my primary focus. 

However, I can say with certainty that I had no idea how much I wanted to be a mother until the exact moment that someone told me I couldn’t. 

I was allowed to complete one cycle of egg freezing a month after my mastectomy and two months after my diagnosis.  I could only do one cycle because it was the longest I could delay chemo without risking my life.  At the time, insurance wasn’t required to cover women facing infertility as a result of a cancer diagnosis and the price tag was high.  I was a federal employee, so my bank account wasn’t exactly overflowing.  I scraped up the funds and a month after my mastectomy, I began fertility treatment. 

Let me set the scene: I had tissue expanders in my chest in preparation for my reconstruction. I was still in bandages and pain from the mastectomy and I had to start hormone injections for fertility treatment.  There is a picture of me from that time that I still can’t even bear to look at.  My breasts were gone and my belly appeared swollen, almost pregnant.  I looked empty and defeated and while that all felt so unbearable, I knew that days after my egg retrieval I was going to start chemo and lose my hair as well.  It’s no wonder that on the day of the retrieval I came out of anesthesia shaking and sobbing.

Ultimately, I was able to freeze 11 eggs.  It wasn’t a great yield, but it was as far as my body was willing to go given the circumstances. 

I had been dating someone at the time of my cancer diagnosis.  We were only dating a month when I got the news.  While we considered freezing embryos, it wasn’t something I was willing to do given the short amount of time we had been dating.  It was the right decision.

After treatment ended, he and I began having trouble in our relationship because he wasn’t sure he wanted to have kids with me.  He was terrified that I would pass cancer on to them or that I would pass away and leave him a young, single father if my cancer returned.  It devastated me and made me physically ill any time I thought about it.  It ultimately caused us to break up after three years of dating, after beating my cancer together with him.

I was single again with 11 frozen eggs, fake boobs, and a really bad haircut.

Fast forward a few more years…a new job, a few relocations, and more dating until I met my current boyfriend, Scott, on a dating app (though it turns out we were actually neighbors).  We started dating in early 2017, when I was 36,  and I knew fairly early on that we would be together for the long haul.  It took Scott a bit longer to realize the same thing but after about six months of dating, we started to joke about him being my “sperm donor.”  I had told him that if I didn’t have kids in a few years I was going to use an anonymous donor (no pressure or anything!)  By that October, we were actively trying to have a baby. 

After months of trying we knew it was time to see a doctor.  When we sought help from a reproductive endocrinologist, we were fully prepared that I was going to need assistance to get pregnant.  We knew our chances were probably less than your average couple because of our ages and my cancer history. 

What we didn’t know is that we didn’t know a lot.  There is a strange thing that happens when you think you have it all figured out; you are quickly reminded that you really don’t know what tomorrow will bring. 

We were facing a diagnosis of premature ovarian failure, as my bloodwork reflected hormone levels of a woman over 50.  We were told that our chance of conceiving naturally was close to 1% and that I would likely be in menopause soon. The uphill battle felt insurmountable, and is impossible to capture with words.  There were nights I cried silently in bed begging God to give me a miracle. It broke Scott’s heart to watch me go through this no matter how hard he tried to hide it. But we were in this together.  The experience was oddly a blessing and a curse on our relationship.

The medical recommendation was to move straight to IVF using my frozen eggs, as a fresh cycle would likely be a waste of time.  I feel weak admitting this, but I just couldn’t do it. I was absolutely terrified to defrost my “insurance policy” no matter how many times they told me it was my only viable option.  I convinced my doctor and Scott to let me try a round of IVF with my fresh eggs.  You know it’s not a good sign when your doctor refers to it as a “closure cycle.” 

My closure came in the form of a cycle that failed miserably at the end of 2018. I was 38 by then. I didn’t even make it to the egg retrieval because there wasn’t a single egg to retrieve. Reluctantly, I accepted that it was time to move on to the frozen eggs. After much debate and counseling, we physically drove to Manhattan (which seemed an interminable journey) and picked up my eggs in a cryotank, then drove them to my clinic in CT. I drove in the backseat holding the tank the entire way.

We began what I like to call my “insurance policy” cycle in March 2019, shortly after I had turned 39.  The eggs were defrosted and put through the fertilization process.  Eight out of 11 eggs fertilized, six survived for a few days, and two made it to the blastocyst stage.

We transferred both embryos on March 9, 2019.  It was beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Scott held my hand and I sobbed during the entire transfer. I felt like my babies had come home after five long years.

I lasted about five days before I decided that I couldn’t stand the temptation any longer and I peed on a stick. If the drive to Manhattan was the longest drive of my life…these were the longest two minutes of my life. I knew that the one pink line that would or wouldn’t be on that stick would once again divide my life, the same way breast cancer did.

There will always be a “before cancer” and an “after cancer” and now there would always be a “before I thought I could have a biological child with Scott” and an “after.”

Unfortunately, there was only one pink line in that window and I needed two. I wanted to see two pink lines more than I ever wanted to see anything in my life. No matter how long I stared at it, or how many times I tilted it, I still saw one pink line. My heart sank. My soul cried. I knew it was still early, but deep down I knew it was over. On the morning of my beta, I peed on a stick one more time and once again there was only one pink line in the window.

I took the call sitting next to my mom and as expected, they told me the test was negative. The devastation I felt when I heard “you’re not pregnant” was exactly the way I felt when I heard “you have breast cancer.” Life-changing, soul-crushing words. Once again, I cried my eyes out in my mom’s arms and wondered how I would find the strength to get out of bed again. On March 19, 2019 at 11:59am I was officially living in the “after.”

There will always be grief and sadness about the loss of the opportunity to have a biological child, but I cherished the thought that although it was for a very short time, I got to carry a piece of me and Scott. I had to move forward, so I got out of bed.

Two short weeks after my beta was negative I met with my doctor about using donor eggs. When Scott offered to accompany me to the appointment, I found a million excuses as to why he didn’t need to come with me. The truth was that I was embarrassed and ashamed and I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy conversation. I couldn’t handle the doctor telling me that my egg quality had caused the cycle to fail and that my egg quality was likely compromised because of cancer. I definitely couldn’t handle hearing it in front of Scott. I felt like my body had failed me once again and had failed him.

I was still in a dark place filled with sadness, loss, resentment, anger, disappointment, and fear but I wasn’t willing to waste more time. I didn’t want to know about the next step, but I needed to. I hoped that this wasn’t the end of the road.

However, the reality is that it was…the end of my biological road to motherhood. That appointment confirmed that any child that came into my world from that day forward would not be genetically mine. I cried in my doctor’s chair again.

Then, I collected myself and asked him to explain to me what the donor egg process looked like and how we could get started. I could tell he was hesitant and he reminded me that we weren’t racing against the clock anymore if I was going to use an egg donor and so I should take my time to mourn and then revisit.

By this time, he had gotten to know me well enough that when I told him I had come there to discuss the egg donor process, not just for him to tell me I have shitty eggs, he gently smiled, shrugged, and dove right in.

I took the call sitting next to my mom and as expected, they told me the test was negative. The devastation I felt when I heard “you’re not pregnant” was exactly the way I felt when I heard “you have breast cancer.” Life-changing, soul-crushing words.

The beginning of my egg-donor process looked something like this: 1) Accept the fact that you need a donor and drink copious amounts of Sauvignon Blanc 2) Figure out how you’re going to secure donor eggs (frozen egg bank, local clinic, egg donor agency, or some shady-ass website) 3) Quickly rule out the shady-ass website 4) Determine the costs of each option and upon realizing that all of them besides the shady-ass website are going to cost you a ridiculous amount of money…drink more Sauvignon Blanc 5) Rule out a frozen egg bank because you need a lot of eggs and not one profile appeals to you in any way 6) Decide to work with your own fertility clinic’s egg donor bank.

I’m currently in the middle of my process now.  We ultimately decided to work with a national egg donor agency because we couldn’t find someone who met our criteria (medical or otherwise) through our clinic’s bank.  Within two weeks I had found my donor.

I knew it as much as I knew my own name that she was meant to be my donor.  It took months of screening, paperwork, grieving, counseling, and anxiety to get to her egg retrieval.  At the end of July, she had an amazing amount of eggs retrieved and I couldn’t be happier to report that we have an amazing number of PGT-A normal embryos ready to make us parents. 

The truth is, when I got the call, I almost forgot that they weren’t my eggs.  I was just as excited as I think I would have been if they were.  I’ll never know if that’s true and I’m perfectly content with that. Today I’m just grateful that a young, healthy woman named Lauren made my dreams a possibility.  She will always have a special place in my broken-but-hopeful heart.

I hope that by the time you’re reading this article, I’ve had my transfer and I am pregnant.  I hope to be part of the “40 and pregnant” club come the beginning of next year, when I turn 40.  I hope that if nothing else, my story gives you hope.  I also want you remember to check your breasts regularly and if you find something, don’t assume it’s nothing because you’re young and healthy.


Sara Sibley
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Sara Sibley


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