Cancer Was the Last Thing I Expected Postpartum

One mom explores the reality of coping with mom guilt over having to prioritize her own health over her child's during her cancer battle.
breast cancer

I never thought I would enjoy being pregnant as much as I did. 

I didn’t experience crazy mood swings, excessive tiredness or even strange cravings. I worked out every day and, up until those final days of pregnancy, slept well most nights. However, when my due date came along, I was more than ready to commence the not-being-pregnant phase of motherhood. 

The plan was to have a vaginal birth—but my cervix wasn’t having it. I was disappointed when they wheeled me into the operating room to start the C-section process. I wiped away my tears and accepted that this was what had to happen in order to meet our baby. 

Recovering from a C-section was no joke, as I reached for my pillow to brace myself every time I had to sneeze. And then of course, there was breastfeeding. My baby had the latch thing down pat, but my breasts were taking their sweet time producing milk, leaving me with no choice but  to supplement with formula. I was okay with that as the best baby is the fed baby. 

Once my milk supply kicked in, it was great—and I could primarily shift to breastfeeding. Rocking him to sleep each night while feeding was my favorite part of each day. 

Truthfully, I had never really thought much of my breasts—two little A-cups, one bigger than the other—but, postpartum, they had grown to small C-cups with a purpose. And, no matter what mood my son was in, a few moments feeding with Mama would always calm him down. 

When I returned to work when he was four-and-a-half months old, I brought my hand pump with me to the office, fully expecting to keep my supply going, but I just couldn’t. It was stressing me out to plan my whole work day around expressing milk. 

There were other new mothers at the office that would rush off to the designated area in the office to pump—a windowless room with a cot that also served as the first aid quarters—but that just wasn’t going to work for me or my mental health. When I got home at five each day, I still managed to get a few feedings in and, between that and the formula, my baby was very happy and so was Mama.  

My breasts managed to keep up with the milk supply, but with my right breast lagging some. “Some breasts just produce less milk,” my doctor assured me. However, as my right breast started to resume its pre-pregnancy size, I noticed a bumpy area had formed at the top of it. 

“It’s probably a plugged milk duct,” my best friend with three kids of her own told me. But it looked very irregular, so I made an appointment to get it checked. 

I will never forget the concerned look on my doctor’s face as she felt the palpable mass situated at the top of my right breast. She sent me in for a rush mammogram and ultrasound and by 4 p.m. that same day, the radiologist confirmed it was breast cancer.

A few days later I met with the breast surgeon who performed a biopsy. Due to the tumor’s size, he was concerned it was going to be a rough battle on my end. I had to wait over a week for the biopsy results, which would confirm next steps along with my fate. 

How could this be happening? Just a few weeks ago we had started talking about growing our family and now all of that was being challenged. 

After the appointment I went home and nursed my son uncertain what the next few months might hold. How would I be there for him as a mom if I had to deal with my own health? Would he feel neglected? 

I worked from home and spent as much time with him as I could. Fortunately, the biopsy determined that the cancer was most likely contained to the breast. I was scheduled for a double mastectomy a few weeks later. 

“We won’t know if the cancer has spread until we operate and test the lymph nodes. But it’s looking promising,” my surgeon said, as he typed into the computer in front of him. 

More waiting and worrying during what was supposed to be the happiest time of my life. 

At 41, I had welcomed a healthy boy after an ideal pregnancy and now all I could think about was would I even get to see him start preschool?

It would be a couple weeks until the surgery and then two more weeks after that before the results came back—how was I supposed to manage? I’m sitting here wishing for time to speed up so I can have answers, but I also don’t want it to go any faster as I want to savor every moment with my son. 

I needed to talk with someone that wasn’t as terrified as I was, so I reconnected with a therapist that I had seen a few years back who is herself a breast cancer survivor. She reminded me that I needed to remain positive and keep doing the things that I love even though all I wanted to do was Google “breast cancer” until the wee hours of the morning. As scary as everything seemed, I still had a little baby who needed his mama. 

As we awaited the surgery date, we planned a baptism for our son. Having my family around was a great distraction and reminder that there was indeed so much to celebrate. I nursed my son as much as I could, knowing that very soon it would be an impossibility. 

I spoke weekly with my therapist and kept on top of my exercising, meeting weekly with a personal trainer to strengthen my body as much as I could knowing it would have a long healing journey ahead. 

The day of the surgery I woke up feeling scared, but also excited. I wanted this cancer out of me. After I changed out of my clothes into the hospital gown I said a quick goodbye to my breasts and was wheeled into the operating room ready for action. 

The next thing I remember I was awake in the recovery room, relieved that the procedure had gone as planned. I devoured the saltines and ginger ale made available and, while I was certainly sore, I was more uncomfortable than anything else. 

Finally I was discharged, my husband helping me into his button down shirt I had borrowed from his collection and my favorite sweats. I thanked the staff as I walked out. 

“Now remember dear, you can’t lift anything heavy for at least four weeks,” I smiled and nodded, eager to get to the elevator.  And then it hit me and I grabbed my husband’s arm: I won’t be able to lift my baby. 

When we got home there was our son, arms reached out for mama to pick him up and carry him upstairs. My husband stood in as my proxy, telling him Mama has a ‘boo-boo’ and Papa will hold you. But our willful boy wouldn’t have it. He screamed and cried, not understanding that picking him up was not an option right now. 

I sat down on the couch and he crawled into my lap as his little hands searched for my breasts, giraffe pacifier hanging from his mouth. As my husband reached for him, he pushed harder on my chest and I flinched from the pain and gently told him to stop. Confused, my son burst into tears. So did I. 

The two-week wait until we found out the results of the surgery and the extent of the cancer was a blur. For the first few days I had these two drains that needed to be monitored and emptied daily. A nurse would visit the house and check them and change my bandages. The physical pain was manageable but the emotional pain, overwhelming. 

When my son saw me he immediately wanted to be carried and held and would have a fit if Mama didn’t agree to his demands Consequently my mother-in-law and husband had to limit him from seeing me. The best part of being a new mom is the baby snuggles—but for now those would have to wait. 

Finally, the results were in, and thankfully, the cancer hadn’t spread. Due to the highly estrogen positive nature of my cancer, my oncologist recommended a protocol that would include putting me into immediate chemical menopause, hence curbing the estrogen production in my body. 

I was floored. Menopause at 41? But what about having another baby? I could go off the treatment in a few years where I would be closely monitored if I got pregnant again. Yet that would also expose me to more estrogen and has its risks.  

I never imagined that the first year of motherhood would be full of such extraordinary struggles. Sleepless nights? Sure. In-laws who think they know more about parenting than you? Of course. But cancer? Never. 

I do Pilates, eat very little meat and barely drink alcohol. I did everything right and yet here I was with the scariest diagnosis. Yet, while that first year was certainly challenging, it also ended up being one of the most exciting and fulfilling. I started freelance writing more and collaborated with Rethink Breast Cancer to help other young people facing a breast cancer battle.

And as for growing our family? In the end we turned to gestational surrogacy (our bun, her oven) and in May 2020 welcomed another healthy and rambunctious baby boy. Our surrogate is now one of my best friends, and when we baptized our second son, she was up there holding him as his godmother. 

It’s been a little over five years since the big C first entered my life and to be honest, there isn’t a day when I don’t think about it. I have regular checkups to monitor for a recurrence and have become a pro at getting blood tests. 

If I’m traveling, I self administer my monthly abdominal injection which keeps me in menopause. One day my injection prescription was on the counter as I had just gotten home from picking it up and my five year old saw it.

“What’s this mama?” he asked. 

“Just some medicine,” I replied.

“To make you strong?” he said.

“Sure,” I answered.

“But mama, you are already so strong!” He exclaimed.

I went over and gave him a big hug. He was right. I was stronger than I could have ever imagined.   

Read more powerful essays and narratives on The Mother Chapter. 



  • Sarah DiMuro

    Sarah DiMuro is a lifestyle writer and journalist based in Toronto, Canada. When not creating content she can be found spending time with her husband and two little boys building Legos, making forts and of course binge watching Bluey. A breast cancer survivor who turned to surrogacy to have her second child, Sarah is very excited to share her unique experiences with The Mother Chapter community.

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