As the 40-ish weeks of pregnancy pass, as active labor leads to delivery, and as those early days as a new parent meld groggily into one another, we’re made privy to some of life’s rawest moments. No matter how you slice it, dice it, breathe it, or push it, labor, delivery, and the postpartum experience are tumultuous for any birthing person. They comprise that unforgiving chapter in which a woman must weigh her autonomy against the infant who begs her for more; in which she navigates a new version of her old life in a body she scarcely recognizes.
As Newton’s third law of motion dictates, every action is met with an equal and opposite reaction – and the experience of birth and postpartum offers no exception. For every big push, a perineum stretched, perhaps torn, and stitched; for every gulp of breastmilk, the looming risk of blocked ducts and mastitis; for every errand run, a diaper blowout that rivals the one before it. And sometimes — or maybe just singularly in my case — for infertility defied, pregnancy accomplished, and childbirth conquered, a cancer diagnosis. Newton’s law.
Allow me to explain.
A miscarriage I sustained at nine weeks pregnant back in 2014 gave way to a secondary infertility diagnosis, which ushered in a wave of grief that stayed with me for years as I parented an only child through blinding grief and gratitude intertwined. But just over a year ago, in the wee hours of a wintry Sunday morning in the American Midwest, I gratefully, proudly, and wildly gave birth to the baby I was told would never exist.
As it goes, I was your average, run-of-the-mill mess. Thanks to a sizeable laceration sustained during all that barbaric howling and pushing, I was taking regular sitz baths before stuffing giant, frozen, witch hazel padsicles into the mesh hospital underwear that I could happily pull up to my engorged breasts — one of which I was ready to lop clean off when it became overrun with mastitis.
With one vitriolic red-streaked breast and a never-ending series of blood-stained pads, Peri-bottle refills, and milk-soaked nursing pads, I slogged my way through those early postpartum days as best as I could. Sure, I was endlessly grateful to be experiencing something never promised to me at all — but as my fragile and stretch-mark-riddled body settled back into its relatively autonomous state, I’d look at my reflection in the mirror and scarcely recognize the person staring back at me.
This, of course, was predominantly because of my physical state: my messy, unwashed hair, the bags under my eyes, and the loose, flannel pajamas I couldn’t be bothered to climb out of for weeks at a time. But it also had to do with this one persistent little spot on my forehead whose presence irked me constantly. It was a zit, or so I thought, until I realized that no matter how much I restrained myself from picking at it, nor how much gusto with which I did pick at it, it wouldn’t go away. I poked, I prodded, and I did everything in my power to keep from panicking when Google did that thing that Google does best and told me that yeah, girl, you’ve got cancer.
I didn’t, though. At a routine physical I’d attended about halfway through my pregnancy, I’d had a physician take a look at that spot. It wasn’t cancer, she assured me — though neither was it a zit. It was a cyst. And because I was pregnant and surgery wasn’t ideal, she handed me a tube of hydrocortisone meant for my eczema and told me that if it was bothering me, I could slap some of this cream on it. So that’s what I did. Except… the cyst only got progressively angrier the more I tried burning it away with that cream.
Time passed, and my intuition battled fervently with the assurance I’d been given.
“I dunno, dude,” I’d say to my husband every month or so; “I still think this is cancer.”
I buried my relentless feeling, my intuition that it was cancer as deeply down as I could. I needed to trust that doctor’s opinion over both Google’s and my own, I urged myself. It felt wrong, though somehow also necessary.
But as the weeks turned into months, as I gave birth to my baby and my skepticism refused to dissipate, my husband overrode even my most valiant efforts to stay apathetic. It was he who ultimately stepped in and made the phone call that landed me in my new dermatologist’s office.
And thank god he did.
I won’t soon forget the hushed whispers taking place right outside that clinic room I sat in, as I waited for the dermatologist to come in and meet me for the first time. It was unnerving. What could they be saying? Didn’t they know how their hushed voices carried?
When the doctor knocked lightly and walked in, it took her all of half a second to look at my forehead with her naked eye and tell me what, on some level, I’d known all along: I had skin cancer. The shock of it rippled through me like an electric current. It ran through my jawbones, it zipped down my spine, and it weakened my knees. I muddled out some response that communicated my understanding, then the rest of our meeting was a blur of muddled conversation about the surgeries I’d have to undergo in the coming weeks.
I mustered up the energy to thank my doctor, then I put my coat on and walked out to my car, carrying my seven-week-old infant in her carseat in one hand, and a fistful of surgical forms and the gravest of dermatological pamphlets in the other. Once we were safely in the confines of my car, I wept.
Healing happens slowly for all of us, whether we’re recovering from the physical trauma of birth, or whether our trauma runs deeper and pulls on those emotional strings in us.
For me, this most recent postpartum experience just so happens to have hit both — everything — all of it. It’s been a year now since I gave birth to the baby I was sure I’d never get to have, and nine months since I had surgery to rid my body of the cancer I was told didn’t exist. I have a new baby, a new scar, and a walking case of skin cancer that I won from a lottery I had no idea I’d been playing. It’s no wonder I’m left reassessing everything I thought I knew about this existence, the fragility of life, and all that it’s able to encompass.
Motherhood, as so many well know, possesses the power to amplify nearly every aspect of the human experience, for the good and the bad alike. Cancer, I’ve learned, holds that same ability. The anxiety and fear I have of finding a new spot and unearthing a new trauma is magnified, but so too is my gratitude for all that I have, and all that which I’ve not yet lost. This life is a lot, without a doubt — but what a gift it is in spite of the disquietude.
As Newton’s third law of motion guided the rupture that took place in my body over this past year, I marvel at the result — at the way such visceral fear incited the wellspring of gratitude I carry with me now. My reentry into new motherhood has been nothing if not savage and brutalizing, yes; but I’m alive. And gratefully so. It’s onward, if not upward, from here.
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