Infertile women have been offered new hope after scientists found that a common cancer drug triggers the development of new eggs, an outcome which was previously thought to be impossible.
—“Infertility breakthrough as cancer drug sparks growth of new eggs in ‘astonishing’ discovery”, The Telegraph, December 6, 2016
Madison had a question that found its way to her in the quiet times, in those moments free of protective distraction. It rushed up from the depths to ensnare her in its tentacular problems: can you really be called a “miracle baby” when the cancer drug that gave you life didn’t save your mother?
When she was old enough to understand the story of how she came to be, she had wondered: was the cancer inside her too? She imagined that the drug worked by taking the cancer from her mother, balling it up, and making eggs from it. It did not cure the cancer, instead only forestalling it for a time. She came to think of herself not as a “miracle baby” as her father had called her, but instead, a “cancer baby.”
She imagined that she could feel the cancer at the very core of her, hibernating like some kind of terrible, cthonic bear. One day soon, it would awaken and ravage her as it had her mother. It was only a matter of time. How much, though? That passing time turned imaginative thoughts into pillars of core belief.
The weight of it informed all of her decisions in life. She never made plans more than a few weeks in advance; after all, the cancer would wake soon, so what was the point? She worked odd jobs, never very disappointed when the work dried up. After all, putting down roots and starting a career only made sense for those people whose lymphocytes weren’t ticking time bombs.
It made no sense to become romantically attached, and so she kept suitors at a distance, only allowing two or perhaps three dates before breaking it off. She carefully explained that she did not expect to live in this world for much longer, and she was sparing them grief. After all, she had grown up in the shadow of her father’s grief, had tasted it in every half-hearted meal, smelled it in the air every morning. She would not wish that kind of grief on anyone, and it was a simple thing to avoid creating it.
She learned to do the blood work herself with at-home testing kits. She tested herself every Sunday, as part of her morning coffee and web-surfing. It came to feel like paying a toll; each week, a prick of blood onto the sensor attached to her tablet was the fee to live another week. One day, her coin would be found counterfeit, she knew. Her only uncertainty was when.
“Remember in college, how I was always coming up with excuses to get an extension for my thesis?” Her friend Bethany once asked. “Your entire life is like that. Eventually, you’re going to need to stop asking for an extension and do the work of living.”
“I just don’t see the point of starting work I’ll never finish,” Madison said.
“Nobody ever really finishes–but I’m not sure this metaphor can be stretched that far,” Bethany said, and dropped the subject. She’d tried for many years to shake Madison’s certainty, but it was a load-bearing belief in the structure of Madison.
Madison was forty-three when her test kit finally showed the positive result she had been expecting. When it did, she broke down in tears of relief. She thought: could you just imagine how horrible it would have been if she had spent all those years expecting the cancer, only to have it never awaken?
She verified the results with a doctor, who advised her on course of treatments. New drugs existed that her mother had never been able to take advantage of, the doctor explained. She would live comfortably for many years, after a painful and trying year of treatment.
Madison digested this news, asking numb, distracted questions about the specifics. In all her years of certainty that the cancer had been deferred to her somehow, she had never considered the possibility that it wouldn’t take her life as it had taken her mother’s. She went along with the treatments, unable to think of any other course of action. They were painful, and at times she considered giving up. Bethany and the doctor convinced her to continue, and she began to feel better in incremental steps.
At fourty-five, the tests showed that her cancer was gone, but that only confirmed what she had felt for months now. The hollow inside her, the den where the cancer had slept for so long, was vacant. The emptiness of it ached like the socket of where a rotted tooth had once been.
At fourty-six, tender, raw, and out of practice, she began to live with tentative, new purpose: to fill the hollow in her heart with new loves and friendships. Always, a little wistfully. She could never shake the feeling that when the cancer departed, she had lost the one last, delicate strand of connection to a mother she had never really known.