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Few Politicians Actually Understand What "Health of the Mother” Really Means

When cancer was suspected during my pregnancy, I faced a decision no woman wants.

Twelve weeks into my pregnancy, my spouse and I were delighted to see our “bean” on ultrasound. We thrilled to the sight of a four-chambered squeezing heart, an enormous head, and tiny, thrashing limbs. When the technician glimpsed an unusual growth on my ovary, we barely paid attention. Only a biopsy could determine what those bulbous shadows in the ultrasound were, but the doctor explained it was either a benign cyst (very likely) or cancer (very unlikely). The chances that the biopsy would result in miscarriage were slightly greater than the odds that the growth would threaten my health if left alone. Buoyed by the doctor’s assurances that the baby looked great, we decided the biopsy was a bad bet.

At the ultrasound eight weeks later, we laughed when we found out the baby was a girl. Her older sister was vibrating in anticipation of learning her sibling’s gender and entirely unprepared to accept the possibility of a little brother. The ultrasound technician found nothing troubling when she scanned the baby’s anatomy. Turning her attention to my ovaries, though, she saw a black circle that she couldn’t interpret. When they told me I could get dressed before the doctor came to talk to us, my spouse and I exchanged an anxious look: They never let you put your pants back on. The cyst on my ovary had grown significantly, it seemed, and now they thought they saw another growth on the other ovary, developments that could put my health and the baby’s at risk.

We scrambled through a wrenching week of anxious phone calls, hospitals, insurance headaches, and ultrasounds that were by turns frightening and reassuring. Sometimes it seemed as though we were in the middle of a real crisis, so numbed by shock that we couldn’t understand what was happening. At other times, it seemed as though we were at the top of a molehill raised to great heights by medicine. The end of the line was a gynecologic oncologist’s office. In the waiting room, my visibly pregnant body sparked looks of confusion and hopeful smiles from women suffering the intertwined effects of cancer and chemotherapy.

Finally, the oncologist explained that ovarian cancer was rare among women in their 30s, but that the tests they had done were inconclusive. More alarmingly, he said that if a biopsy revealed a malignancy, it would not be possible to treat the cancer effectively without terminating the pregnancy.

None of our options seemed good. I could get the biopsy, have the relief of a benign result, but suffer a miscarriage. I could get the biopsy, face a malignant result, and have to weigh my life against my child’s in even starker terms. I could skip the biopsy, only to discover later that cancer had gone untreated for months, possibly putting both the baby’s and my life at risk. Whichever way we went, everything we cared about was on the line.

We wanted more information, and the oncologist ordered one more test, an MRI. The loud banging of the magnets imaging our future made the baby jump like a toddler trying to escape her mother’s lap. Then, less than 24 hours later, the oncologist called: “I do not believe you need me now, and I hope that you never need me.” Only a biopsy could provide certainty, he reminded us. We decided that we didn’t want or need to know for sure. It seemed like the crisis had passed.

But the oncologist turned out to be wrong. At 36 weeks pregnant, my placenta tore loose from my uterus, and a life-threatening hemorrhage sent me careening into the operating room for an emergency C-section. The last thing I heard before the anesthesia kicked in was a nurse saying she could not find the baby’s heartbeat. When the obstetrician made her hurried incision, she saw my ovary glued to my uterus with cancer. After she stopped the blood loss, she called in a gynecologic oncologist to address the cancer that had probably precipitated it. In a painstaking eight-hour surgery, he found cancer everywhere from my rectum to my diaphragm. Amazingly, our daughter suffered no long-term ill effects from our shared near-death experience, though I still nurse its scars.