A different sort of journey

Two Sundays ago, I had a positive pregnancy test. Well, three positive tests, to be exact. This was something Ryan and I have been trying for, so the two pink lines filled me with equal parts joy and terror. But just a few days later, before we could really start to get used to the idea that we were going to be parents, I started bleeding and cramping. After a few more days, I had come to terms that even if I had been pregnant on Sunday, by Friday I no longer was.

Can’t argue with three of ’em.

I always assumed I’d grow up, get married and have babies. I never questioned that order of events until, when I was married to my first husband, we got to the “have babies” part of life and I balked. He and I had talked about starting a family, but when the moment came, I realized I wasn’t ready. Thus far, I’d followed every life step in the right order, as mandated by my religious, Texas upbringing: Graduate high school, go to college, go to grad school because I hadn’t found a husband yet, find a husband, get married. When I got married at 25, I was two babies behind my little sister and “behind” most of my high school pals.

However, not long after I was married, I was walking my dogs around our suburban neighborhood. The sidewalks were filled with moms pushing babies in strollers, happily chatting and laughing. Kids were playing in backyards. The sun was out and the birds were singing. It was a perfect spring day, straight out of a storybook. And I stopped in my tracks with a gut-wrenching realization: I don’t want this.

For 26 years, I’d followed every rule and completed every step toward creating a life most people would love, yet I had somehow instead created a life I hated. I felt trapped and pinned in, and I knew adding kids to the mix was a recipe for disaster. This realization was life-changing, and ultimately lead to my divorce (among other things- I don’t want to oversimplify a complicated relationship with a good person).

Most people don’t know this, but I signed up to swim the Catalina Channel solely as a way to cope with my divorce. I’d done the Horsetooth 10k a few times and had been thinking about going longer, but my divorce was truly the catalyst that made me pull the trigger. I saw it as a way to change my focus from something negative into something positive, to give me something to do physically, and to prove that I wasn’t too old for adventure. I changed jobs, moved towns and set out to create a life that I wanted, whatever that might look like.

My Catalina Finish in July 2010

Not too soon after my divorce was finalized, I started dating Ryan. We’d been co-workers and when he found out I was single, he immediately asked me out. Our first date was exactly 11 years ago (on May 11) and in Ryan, I found someone who didn’t feel constrained by the rules and expectations by which I’d felt imprisoned. From the get-go, he was supportive of my swimming and together we built a life around camping, fishing, swimming, and travel. For the first time in my life, I started to feel not only happy, but also content. Life is never perfect, but for the first time, I felt in control. Ryan and I were intensely happy with our life choices. And somewhere in there, when the subject of marriage and kids came up, we decided that we didn’t want kids.

And the last 11 years have been amazing. I’ve done and seen things I never even imagined possible when I said goodbye to my old life. I’ve traveled, swam, made amazing friends, and done extraordinary things. With Ryan next to me, I have never felt so loved. He makes me feel like anything could be possible, and however grumbly he gets, he’s there to make my dreams happen. We really are the best team and my life has turned into exactly what I never even knew I wanted.

When I pause and look around, I see a life I love, filled with swim adventures, dogs, and happiness. How could I possibly want more?

Our first camping trip- August 2010

However, starting in about 2016-ish, I realized I really might want kids someday. It started as a little niggle and I started to bring it up to Ryan in quiet moments as something, far, far in the future that I might want, even though we’d agreed otherwise. I knew I was going back on our agreement, so I didn’t push too hard. Besides, we still had Lake Powell and then Lake Champlain to swim, and of course that big English Channel Four Way. In my mind, I always thought after the English Channel swim was over, we’d start a family. Ryan wasn’t entirely on board, but I figured a few years of lead time would get him ready when I was ready to take a swimming break.

And then I got cancer. There are many horrific things that come along with cancer treatment. For me, the loss of my ability to choose what happened to me and my body was at the top of the list. In between all of the initial appointments and scans and pokes that come with a cancer diagnosis, we were told to go talk to a fertility doctor. It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. Because chemo needed to happen first in my treatment plan, we literally had hours to decide if we wanted to move forward with fertility treatments to preserve eggs for future IVF use. We walked out of the appointment, me in tears and Ryan stunned into silence, realizing two things. First, we likely had some pre-existing fertility issues that would need to be addressed at some point if we wanted a family. Second, neither of us were ready emotionally to postpone chemo for added trauma to my body, for a family we hadn’t even decided we really wanted. And so we decided to skip fertility treatments.

What a Zoladex shot looks like. You can see the pellet in the top right image.

When I shared this with my oncologist, she suggested that we add a Zoladex shot into my treatment plan. Because I had triple negative breast cancer, there were studies that showed the hormonal treatment could simultaneously increase my body’s response to chemo, but also potentially help protect my ovaries from the harsh effects of high powered drugs. So, once a month during chemo, I’d go in and have a nurse insert a small pellet under my skin, just below my belly button. We didn’t know if it would work, but when my periods resumed in September 2018, about two weeks after radiation ended and after nine months of medically induced menopause suffering, I cried. I’ll never forget calling Ryan with the news, and the sound of relief and joy in his voice when he realized why I was crying tears of happiness. Not only would the horrific hot flashes hopefully stop, for the first time in months, I felt the hope of possibility for a family.

Horsetooth 10k- September 2018. A day of hope and joy.

We still had the English Channel Four Way to focus on, in addition to being told not to try for a baby for 18 months after chemo, so Ryan and I moved forward, focusing on swimming and not really discussing my dreams for a family. But, after the swim was done- I was ready to start seriously talking about it. But, Ryan still wasn’t. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but when it did come up, he expressed wanting some down time to just regroup and enjoy each other again, without big swims or cancer weighing us down. We really had been through a lot, so I understood his desires to pause a second before jumping into the next really big thing. And so I let it go for a while longer.

And then COVID happened. I was struggling with happiness in my job, and during a pandemic, we didn’t want to bring a new person into the mix when our financial future was unknown. We were lucky to be stable during COVID, but always with the fear that something terrible could happen when we weren’t looking.

Our grocery store in March 2020. Who wants a baby when you can’t buy bread?

But after a big heart to heart in October, I finally got from Ryan what I needed to hear: We could try. After a false positive test in early December (one positive test, followed by four negative ones), which was likely caused by my pre-menopausal status (thanks, chemo), I went to the doctor to get a checkup and have some bloodwork run. The results were not encouraging, but did indicate a baby was possible. Ryan and I agreed that we didn’t want to pursue IVF/fertility treatments, so would keep trying naturally to see what would happen next.

it was a one-poke day. YAY!

All of this probably comes as a surprise to many of our family and friends. We agreed early on that we didn’t want to share this part of our journey with anyone. Both of our families have told us for years that they wish we’d start a family. After adamantly not wanting kids for years, then not knowing if it was possible after cancer, we didn’t want the pressure of getting anyone’s hopes up, only to have to share in the disappointment if it never happened. I’ve cried so many hopeful tears these last few months- imaging telling my mom we were having a baby, picturing myself picking out baby clothes for myself instead of for nieces and nephews, fantasizing about a messy house full of noise and love. So many dreams, all held so close inside my own heart that I’ve been too terrified share with anyone besides Ryan.

But the events of the past two weeks have made me want to open up and share this part of our story. I’ve talked so openly about my cancer treatments. I share about my swimming freely. But why do we not talk about fertility challenges, miscarriages, and loss? I’ve heard from a few close friends this past week, “We went through something similar.”  Yet even in years of friendship, it never came up. I certainly don’t blame or fault anyone for staying quiet. It’s so deeply personal and emotional, and especially after successful pregnancies I can understand wanting to move forward. But, if their pain is even half of the pain I’ve felt, why aren’t we talking about this more?

This was my misery doing our taxes. Not quite the same emotion as now, but closest I could find.

The positive pregnancy test came hours before I was due to get on a plane and fly to Arizona to swim SCAR: A four-day, approximately 40-mile stage race swim challenge that is held in four lakes outside of Phoenix along the Salt River. I was a little apprehensive about leaving Ryan home alone, but he told me to go and have fun- life was changing soon, so might as well have some adventure while I still could.

Everything was fine on Monday, but on Tuesday I started to have some bleeding. Thinking it was normal spotting, I wasn’t worried. I swam a great first day across Saguaro lake on Wednesday, finishing 2nd overall and first for the women. I was only 7 minutes slower than my time in 2013 and was overjoyed. I’m eight years older, lived through cancer and am now pregnant- those 7 minutes were nothing. I felt great.

However, by day two, Canyon Lake, I was bleeding more heavily and in more pain. I felt bloated and had cramps like nothing I could describe. Thinking it was maybe something I ate, I made it my mission to just finish the swim. I swam easy, enjoyed the scenery and tried to focus on what was happening around me and not what was happening on the inside.

Me and my fabulous friend/kayaker right before Canyon. I felt so sick I could barely walk.

After Canyon, my abdomen was so sore it hurt to walk. We did the long drive from Canyon around to the very remote Apache Lake. I didn’t feel like eating dinner and in the absence of TV, internet, or texting, we went to bed at 8:30 pm in preparation for a 5 am wakeup call the next morning. The cramps were severe and after waking up a few times on Thursday night to lots of bleeding, by Friday morning, I had finally grasped what was happening- and it wasn’t good.

Prepping feeds on Friday morning for a 13ish mile swim of Apache, I was dizzy and nauseous. I took some pain meds for the first time, hoping they’d give me enough relief to be able to swim. After eating a bagel and taking things really slow- I finally felt up to getting ready to swim. I could still barely walk, but swimming is 100% easier than walking, so I was ready to go.

I felt a million times better during Friday’s swim in Apache. The cramping had subsided somewhat with the pain meds and I had a glorious swim. I loved the 52-degree water at the start and enjoyed the tailwind, sunny skies and fighter jets that buzzed overhead at about the halfway mark. I was able to hammer the last hour of the swim, just for fun, and came in at the finish just about a minute slower than I had in 2013.

Apache

Friday night, I felt ok, but by Saturday, I was again in pain. Walking hurt and all I wanted to do was curl up into a ball and sleep. There was still a 10k in Roosevelt Lake to swim, so I focused on hydrating and conserving energy for the evening swim, and not the dizziness and nausea I was feeling. (Yes, in retrospect, I realize how dumb all this was- I should have gone home.) At the start, everyone in my wave took off like we were swimming the 50 free. Not in the mood to fight for it, I held back and focused on enjoying the swim. I love a good rowdy swim when I know it’s short, and Roosevelt started off nice and rough with a glorious headwind. However, as the sun started to set, the wind calmed. We were treated to a beautiful sunset with perfectly calm, warm water. I knew I had about a 15-minute overall lead on the 2nd place woman, so as long as she wasn’t 15 minutes ahead of me in the 10k, I knew the coveted SCAR belt buckle was mine. While I didn’t feel great, I still managed to enjoy the swim and the evening. I finished second for the 10k, but first overall across all four stages for the women (and 2nd behind my good friend Fast Mike). I worked hard for that belt buckle!

The coveted belt buckle.

I flew home the next day, feeling really tired and beat up, but not overly uncomfortable. I assumed the worst was behind me, but at the urging of a friend, I made a doctor’s appointment to get checked out. He assured me that I had likely had a miscarriage, but what had happened didn’t seem normal.

I went in on Tuesday afternoon and had an ultrasound. At about 6 weeks, she didn’t see any tissue in my uterus, which she should have been able to find. Other than a lot of fluid on my pelvis, there was nothing to be seen. It seemed to confirm what I already knew. However, she wasn’t able to see my ovaries clearly. She tried an abdominal ultrasound with no luck, so she sent me across the hall for a second ultrasound with the fancy machines. After about 20 minutes of digging and poking, I was told I could get up. The doctor came back in and let me know she could see a mass on my right ovary, which was either a cyst from pregnancy or a sign of an ectopic pregnancy. She didn’t think it was ectopic but she wanted to do some bloodwork, then have me come back on Thursday to repeat both the ultrasound and bloodwork to look for any trends.

When Tuesday’s blood work came back, my HCG pregnancy hormone was high. Too high. She still wasn’t especially worried about an ectopic pregnancy, but the fluid present on my abdomen and the mass that hadn’t changed in two days were making the alarm bells start to go off.

On Friday afternoon, the results from my 2nd round of blood work came back. My pregnancy hormone had increased, but not enough to indicate a normal pregnancy. Because of the mass and because my HCG levels weren’t going down, it was a really strong indication of an ectopic pregnancy. I now had only two options to move forward: To treat the ectopic pregnancy medically or surgically. After weighing our options, we decided to move forward with the medical option. On Saturday morning, I picked up two vials of methotrexate and met the doctor in a deserted office to get two shots, one to each butt cheek. This drug should stop the mass from multiplying and save me from having a rupture in my fallopian tubes that would lead to immediate, emergency surgery to remove the ectopic pregnancy and one of my tubes.

I still have several weeks of blood work and follow up as we wait for my HCG levels to sink to zero. I’m tired. Like really, really tired. I’ve been bleeding for nearly 2 weeks. I can’t swim again until the bleeding stops. Test results from Tuesday’s third blood draw were really positive, so hopefully Friday’s results show more of the same downward trend. There’s still a small risk I could rupture something, which means an emergency room trip and emergency surgery, but with Tuesday’s results that seems unlikely. There’s still some journey left to go here, but hopefully no further complications.

Flowers from a friend.

I don’t think until now I ever realized how hard this moment can be. From the outside, it’s easy to look at it clinically, and for the last week, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing to myself. I’ve been logically telling myself some combination of: It was early; barely formed. There was just something genetically wrong. We can try again. At least now we know things can work. It’s not a big deal- things like this happen more than I know. Better it happened now, so early, than later on. Good thing we caught it before I needed surgery. And on and on.

But, living it, it’s not that simple. I’ve been going about my life, holding my pain on the inside for two weeks, barely telling anyone. I swam a race. I went to work. I spoke to a group of high school students, literally minutes after getting results that indicated we’d moved from miscarriage to ectopic. I’ve smiled outwardly, as though my heart wasn’t breaking on the inside. This is just what women do. We hold onto our grief in some weird, unspoken code that says we don’t talk about miscarriages and are expected to just carry on normally. I’ve felt the pressure to be like others who I know have dealt with this, to just feel the loss, get over it, and move on as soon as I’m ready (which should be quickly, btw. It wasn’t a REAL pregnancy). There’s only the secret confession when a friend confides she had a miscarriage, “I had one, too”, that lets me know I’m not alone.

I wish more people shared. Maybe then, I wouldn’t feel so hurt and alone, broken with grief.

Ryan has barely left my side, I know this is hard on him, but I think he’s more scared for what this is doing to me and my body. He had a hard year watching me suffer through cancer treatment and if I had to guess, this is bringing up difficult memories for him, seeing me physically hurting and emotionally suffering.  

Ryan took the day off to drive me to appointments. D’Arcy rewarded him with fancy coffee.

But, for me, in my heart, I’m acutely feeling the loss of hope. What’s happening to my body is secondary to the feelings of the loss of a life I wanted to create. The loss of a family I hoped to have. And I’m scared. I’m scared for what happens if we do try again. I’m afraid that chemo did damage my body and that if we try again, this will keep happening. Also, I turn 39 in a week. Not exactly prime age for having kids. I’m terrified I’ll never again get to feel the joy of what I felt for just a few days, knowing I was finally going to get to be a mom. I’m scared that I won’t have the courage to risk this pain a second time.

I know Ryan and I are both still reeling. We have no idea what comes next. We agreed to get through this one day at a time, together, and then decide later what happens from here.

But, sitting here on Mother’s Day, with my heart breaking and tears flowing, I knew I needed to share my story. I am blessed to have people reaching out to say they care and to say that they’re here for me. I know we’ll get through this and that things will get better than this moment. But, right now, this moment hurts. The Mother’s Day social media pictures of pregnant women and new babies, the best wishes from dads and kids to their moms, the celebration for something I desperately want and may never have about killed me. Tomorrow, I will be able to share in those joys again, but today, just for a moment, I need to allow myself to feel sad and to sit with my grief. In a world that tells us to move on, today I’m telling myself it’s ok to hold it, feel it, experience it. Not forever, but as long as I need to heal.

And just like I hope when I shared my cancer journey, I pray that someone reads this and knows they’re not alone. You are loved. Your baby is loved. And, if you need me, I will share your pain and heartache. I’m here for all of it.

16 thoughts on “A different sort of journey”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your journey. I can’t have children & this has been the most painful thing in my life. I’ve just signed up to swim the English Channel in a relay team. Sending you prayers

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for sharing Sarah, I’m sure it will help many. Know Mother’s Day is bittersweet for so many for so many different reasons. While I’m thrilled to celebrate my boys, I lost my mom almost 40 years ago and the loss runs deep. When I spoke to someone who had recently lost her mom, I flat out said, it sucks! She thanked me for not saying something cliche like, time heals. Grief is very real.

        Keep doing what your heart tells you. I found it knows best.

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  2. Sending you prayers… I truly wish for you to get everything you want. You’re such an inspiration to so many people in so many ways.

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  3. I’m so sorry for your loss Sarah. You are so courageous and so inspirational. I pray you and Ryan will in time have the family you deserve until then rest up and know we are all thinking of you xxx

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  4. Your honesty is refreshing, I wish more women spoke openly about the pains we face. Sending you much love and healing and holding you and your dreams of motherhood in my heart.

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  5. A touching read that will help so many, I wish you and Ryan well. Take all the time that you need, take life at your pace – just like swimming, you will know when its time to push it once more.

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  6. Thank you so much for sharing such a raw and personal moment. As you say, so few people share their experiences and you’ve taken such a powerful step. Wishing you all the best. Xx

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    1. Hi Sarah sharing is so powerful I agree. I had 8 miscarriages before my girls were born supported by some supplemental hormones. Since then I’ve had cancer in the womb and am about to go in to have a second surgery 5 years after my hysterectomy. I have such a dysfunctional baby making capability but I did get there. I’m 42 now and I’m starting to hope that this is the last treatment for me and then I can use swimming to pull me through it. Lots of love and light to you. Be gentle to yourself. Xx

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  7. Sarah,
    Thank you very much for sharing from the bottom of your heart. Your writing reminds us of the ups and downs of life, that we must be able to accept the downs that will make us rise even stronger. Over the years, I have come to understand that part of happiness is in mindfulness…
    ☀️🐬

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  8. Thank you for sharing your story Sarah. I just wanted to share with you there’s still hope after ectopic. I know how much it hurts I had an ectopic pregnancy in 2018 where they removed a fellopian tube, they couldn’t find the ectopic for weeks and kept saying it wasn’t an ectopic,, but I managed to get pregnant 7 months later.

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  9. Hang in there! You have had your share of difficulty and also success. Life is a balance of both. I am a cancer survivor, miscarriage survivor, mother of there nearly grown boys, and at age 58, began learning to swim comparatively. My first races are coming up this summer. My youngest son was born when I was nearly 41, after 3 miscarriages, so don’t give up. Life is the journey. Enjoy where it takes you, and never stop sharing your stories. along the way.

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  10. 😦 sorry for the loss… You’ve got a great support group, starting with Ryan, and I’m happy you’re surrounded by them all. I wish we were closer, but we are thinking of you often. Lots of hugs 🙂

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  11. You describe your miscarriage in honest, real terms. Thank you. In 2000, I had a second trimester miscarriage two years after our daughter was born. Like you, I was swimming hard right up until I was brought to my knees. I told my husband as we were at the hospital, “This is a bad day but we will have better ones in front of us.” I found it takes about as long to become physically unpregnant as I the time I was pregnant. During this time, I was honest with people about what had happened. Some of them didn’t want me to be so open with this “uncomfortable topic” (for them) but it certainly was therapeutic for me. We eventually went on to have our son complete our family. The way I think about this miscarriage is that if it hadn’t happened, we’d never have known this great guy. I wish you all the best going forward in all areas of your life. Swimcerely, Marcia Cleveland

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