In April 2005, I was diagnosed with cancer. It was just two weeks after the birth of my ninth baby, and days after my youngest brother’s death in a car accident. I stopped breast-feeding immediately as I needed many tests including an MRI and CT scan, the latter of which required the ingestion of radioactive material. What’s more, chemotherapy was next to come. A mother simply couldn’t nurse with those toxins rushing through her body.
Immediately upon weaning, I experienced complications. I had an allergic reaction to the CT dye. I also felt relentless mental anguish of not being able to nourish and bond with this baby the way I had the other eight. I felt guilty. I worried that she might grow up without me. I was exhausted from birth, from tending to a newborn, from dealing with grief. I was uncertain of my own life and future.
But the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back of my emotions came when my husband and I were sitting in the oncologist’s office, after a tests had been completed, while my mind was spinning with the diagnosis, treatment plan and clinical trial options. The oncologist ended his discussion of my future by saying, “Now before we start, we need to get you on birth control because you absolutely must not get pregnant.”
A pregnancy, the doctor explained, would hamper my progress, my prognosis and the ultimate outcome, which was a nice way of saying that my life depended on it not happening.
“We practice Natural Family Planning,” I remember offering weakly.
The doctor kindly stated that chemotherapy would wreak havoc on my system. I had at least six months of rigorous treatment ahead of me. The symptoms of ovulation could not be relied upon. Sometimes chemotherapy pushes a woman into early menopause. Other times her cycle simply becomes erratic and irregular, making determination of fertility signs difficult. I couldn’t afford to make a mistake reading my signs. I was told that if people used NFP during cancer treatment, they usually also used a “back up.”
Suddenly this became clear. At one of the weakest points of my physical and emotional life I was going to be morally challenged too. Herein lay David’s and my difficult choice: Would we choose to be fully Catholic and reject artificial birth control, or choose to make an exception for ourselves?
As the oncologist delivered his birth control recommendation David and I looked at each other. We simultaneously but quietly vetoed the idea.
Some Catholics counseled that our situation was “different.” “You have a serious reason to avoid a pregnancy,” they said, “You can’t be expected to give up relations too. And besides you have been open to life.” Others said, “God will understand birth control is necessary in this one exceptional case.”
I appreciated the empathy and the genuine concern behind the words, but I knew in my heart that I could not follow something I knew not to be true. If artificial birth control were okay for me it would be okay for another exception, and then another, and then, of course for anyone at all. We would stay the course.
Perhaps you think that a two-week post partum, exhausted and sick woman does not have marital intimacy as a priority on her mind. You are right. But if you were diagnosed with a life-threatening disease and you thought that you might die, you would likely begin to yearn for the love, reassurance and intimacy that the marital act provides. The thought of the possibility of never having that again was terrifying. Sometimes my mind would wander too. What if I died? What if my husband remarried? What if his new wife were better, prettier, holier than me? As I grew bloated from treatment, as my hair fell out, I continued to feel ugly and depressed. How could he still love me? Stay with me? I had nothing to offer him. It was tempting for me to reconsider our decision.
In my husband’s mind, however, the matter was settled. We would get through this cancer trial and all it entailed and look forward to a normal relationship again. I contacted the Pope Paul VI Institute, spent hours learning the nuances of interpreting data in a situation such as mine, and considered an ultra-vigilant NFP approach, ultimately David and I took the most conservative route. Abstinence.
Six months later, after 12 grueling treatments I was pronounced “cancer-free.” I was grateful for the strength and leadership of my husband. Our life slowly resumed to a “new normal,” and now today we look back on the cancer experience as just a blip on the screen, an experience that was extremely challenging but thankfully in the past. We are happy we made the decision we did.
I believe God gave David and me that time for productive soul-searching and deep spiritual bonding together. God offered us a chance to definitively choose Him, to grow in maturity and be strengthened through the myriad ways that suffering does.
Today I also look at Catholic couples who struggle with the Catholic teaching on birth control and who feel tempted to think that artificial contraception might be the answer. I want to encourage them. Be strong. Stay true to your faith. You can do this! Even in exceptional situations, make the right choice, even if it is the difficult one. Blessings will follow.
What was your difficult choice? How has it changed you? Write me at theresathomaseveryday [email protected].
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