Choices….

Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States, our country has been engulfed in a level of tension I’ve not experienced in my lifetime.  Much of it has played out on social media, not always diplomatically, and most certainly very rarely inclusive of real fact.

It’s been disappointing and disheartening to watch.  Personally, I’ve unfollowed and unfriended family members and lifelong friends who have proclaimed support for policies that violate the most basic of human rights.  Not to mention those who happily rallied behind a campaign that was fueled by hate, racism and misogyny and/or those who just blindly followed party lines even though they did not particularly support Trumps proposed policies.

When Trump won the election, a somewhat distant family member of mine posted to Facebook, “Finally!  A white president again!”

Another, a friend I’ve known for more than 20 years, wrote, “Watch out bitches, this is Trump Nation!”  Though, I suppose, “bitches” could have been used as an all encompassing adjective, I unfollowed him anyway….because it was ignorant and tacky….much like the Trump campaign.

Now that it’s officially official, I, along with many others who are frightened and concerned by what the next four years could bring, am watching and listening intently as the new president begins his first days in office….with a bang.

I could write and write and write about the policies that concern me.  Those specific to the environment, immigration and women’s rights, being chief among them, but there is one specific topic that has struck a chord with me like never before.  The issue of Pro-Choice vs. Pro-Life.

I have always considered myself Pro-Choice and the reasons for that are many, but the topic took on a far more personal meaning for me a few years ago.

I’ve previously written about how I was diagnosed with cancer when I was 22 weeks pregnant with my first child, my son.  My story had a happy ending, but I wasn’t always certain it would.

When a large mass was discovered in the center of my chest after a series of unusual symptoms in the early weeks of my pregnancy, I was admitted to the Cancer Center at a Boston hospital for further testing and diagnosis.

My first day and night in the hospital involved a flurry of activity and visits by various hospital professionals who were full of questions and ideas.  At that point, the only thing anyone had to go on was an image of the mass.

It was incredibly overwhelming and frightening to listen as my doctors discussed the plan for obtaining an official diagnosis and speculating as to what that diagnosis might be; what the treatment plan would call for, my survival rate and so on.

The physician who would ultimately become my primary Oncologist was certain I had some kind of lymphoma, but the type was to be determined.  He’d narrowed it down to a few types he suspected were the likely culprit and he was optimistic that my chances were good.

In order to obtain a sample needed to make a diagnosis though, I would need to undergo a needle biopsy.  It was a relatively non-invasive procedure, but it would be exceptionally difficult for me.  The mass in my chest was so large it had wrapped itself around my wind-pipe and had cut off the primary vein that carries blood between the heart and the brain.  The mass was also pressing down on my heart and lungs, all of which made it difficult for me to lie on my back for any length of time, which was necessary for the doctor to obtain a sufficient sample.

In the event I couldn’t get through the procedure, a surgeon had been called in to consult.  He was brilliant, to be sure, but unlike my Oncologist, who had a way of delivering difficult news in a way that made me feel like a human being, Dr. Surgeon was seriously lacking in bedside manner.  I later dubbed him the Angel of Death.

He and my Oncologist had differing opinions regarding my diagnosis.  The Angel of Death believed the images of the mass and my reported symptoms indicated I had Thymoma….a very rare and difficult cancer….and that I was probably stage III or IV.

In his opinion, I should be planning my funeral, not my baby shower.  His exact words, “Don’t think you can be one of those women who can have a baby and cancer at the same time.  You’re going to need to make a choice.”

It was explained to me that the treatment for Thymoma was aggressive.  It would require surgical removal of the tumor and it was also possible/likely, that the cancer could have spread to other parts of my body.  He informed me that waiting to treat until my son could be safely delivered was not an option, because my condition would only worsen and I would not live long enough to deliver him.

In other words, either my son could die and I could take a crack at survival, or we both would die.  He delivered all of this to me with the same degree of compassion he might offer were he a waiter telling me the kitchen had 86’d the night’s dinner special.

After he left my room that night, I hit an emotional rock bottom I didn’t know existed.  I sobbed in a way that was so desperate and raw, it almost seemed outside the real of human emotion.  I begged God, I made promises and I apologized, over and over, to my baby….who, just a few days prior, I’d learned would be a boy.

As I cried, my “choices,” that didn’t feel like choices at all, ran circles in my mind.  If the Angel of Death was right, what would I do?

Could I refuse treatment and just pray I might, by some miracle, deliver a healthy baby, even if it meant I wouldn’t be there to raise him?

Would he suffer if I were to refuse treatment and try?

Was it right to bring a baby into the world who would never know his mother?

Could I actually go through with terminating my pregnancy in hopes of saving myself and if I did, could I live with that decision?

By sheer luck of the biological draw, it was not a dire decision I would have to make.  Within days of that conversation, I was able to undergo a successful needle biopsy and I was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma that could, for the most part, be safely treated through chemotherapy while pregnant.

However, there were still risks and I was informed that the road ahead would be difficult.

I could develop a serious infection during treatment that could cause complications for both me and my baby.  We could even die from such an infection.

If I was unable to tolerate the chemo regimen, it might be difficult for me to maintain an otherwise healthy pregnancy.

I could still have a miscarriage, or a still birth, as it would have likely been called at that point in my pregnancy.

I could also go into early labor and deliver a preemie who could need anywhere from a few week’s stay in the hospital, to months….and who might not make it and/or could have a lifetime of developmental delays and other medical complications stemming from an early birth.

I was told that I had a choice.  I could abort my pregnancy and direct my energy and focus solely on the fight ahead, or I could continue on and hope for the best for us both.

For me, this one was an easy choice to make and not because I’m a better mother than a woman who might have chosen differently.

It was easy, because I had a loving and supportive husband who was with me every step of the way.  I had a circle of family members and friends who would drop everything to be there for me if I needed someone to run an errand, make dinner, do my laundry, walk the dog, go wig shopping, make me laugh, listen to me cry, or do any number of other things I might need or want.

I had a generous, company provided, short and long term disability plan that would cover my earnings if I needed to be out of work for a prolonged period of time.  I had a supportive team of managers and co-workers who allowed me a significant amount of flexibility and understanding as I tried to juggle my work, my pregnancy and my cancer treatments.

I had paid maternity leave.

I had access to some of the best medical resources this country has to offer….practically in my backyard.

I had great health insurance that required little to no out of pocket once I’d met my low deductible.  My plan covered the cost of literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses both my son and I ultimately incurred.  I was fortunate not to come out of the experience buried in a mountain of debt.

In the event I was unable to return to work and needed to leave my job, my husband and I had the financial resources we would need to survive it.

If I died, I had a life insurance policy and retirement savings that would help provide for my family for a while in my absence.

I think about this time in my life often.  Every time I reach a recovery milestone and every time I look at my son.  I am so incredibly grateful for my outcome.  In the end, I delivered a perfectly healthy baby boy.  He came six weeks early, but without complication and he is hands down the best thing I’ve ever done.

I know it’s not the same for women everywhere though and I occasionally wonder what I might have chosen had any one of the variables been different.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about it and wondering what it might have been like had I known I didn’t have the right to choose at all.

“But your situation was different.”  You might be thinking.

It’s hard for me to understand why anyone believes, regardless of the circumstances, that our government should be allowed to decide when this very personal choice is justified and when it should be considered morally reprehensible.

I don’t believe any woman makes this choice due to a flippant disregard for life.  I don’t believe there aren’t substantial emotional consequences throughout the decision making process and in the years that follow.

For women who are faced with making this choice due to a medical condition, in the aftermath of rape, or even, yes, in the wake of an irresponsible round of unprotected sex, taking away the choice won’t take away the action.

Neither will eliminating services like those provided through organizations such as Planned Parenthood, whose services are not exclusively limited to abortions.  I used Planned Parenthood beginning at age 18 through the age of 25 for my well women exams and to obtain birth control pills.

I didn’t have health insurance.  There was no universal healthcare and my employer, even in the first few years of my professional career, was not required to provide it.  I couldn’t afford the cost of the exam or the pills through a “regular” doctor’s office, but at Planned Parenthood, I could get my annual exam for around $30 and even less than that when money was tight.

I appreciated their services and education, but I never felt short of humiliated and ashamed every time I walked through the crowd of protesters carrying signs depicting the images of aborted babies and calling me a murderer on my way in for a Pap smear and a breast exam.

If it weren’t for the fact that I had a family history of women’s health issues, I probably wouldn’t have continued to go.  I wonder how many other women make that perilous choice.

Eliminating these services won’t eliminate or lower the abortion rate in this country.  It will, however, eliminate a safe place for women to gain knowledge, support and medical care….which will only lead to drastic and dangerous measures to obtain the very thing staunch Pr0-Life advocates are forcefully trying to eradicate.

It’s an ugly choice, no doubt about it.  But it should be a choice.  And in this free country of ours, we have the power to make it an educated and safe one.  Let’s start there.

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