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Fertility, Femininity, and Cancer

When I was a teenager and in my 20s, I never thought deeply about having children or becoming a mother. By the time I turned 30, I was very busy with graduate school and work, pushing the idea of children even further back into the recesses of “possibilities” for my future. In fact, the older I got, the more I questioned whether or not I ever wanted children at all…until one day I did. What happens when a woman’s ability to conceive and carry a child is no longer a physical possibility due to cancer or its treatment? What does it mean to create and carry a child and what are the options for those whose bodies are unable to perform this function? Does a cancer diagnoses in women of reproductive age or pre-reproductive potential impact our perception of them as “mother” or “woman” if their fertility becomes affected as a result of their illness?

These questions made me think about my own experience as a woman and a mother and how that has been influenced by my environment and personal experience. As a self-proclaimed feminist and advocate for women’s rights, I was always reticent to link women with motherhood for the very obvious reason that not all women are mothers nor do all women aspire to become mothers.., however now that I am one.., my sense of purpose is very much tied to that identity. The process of having a biological child has been integral to my womanhood and I understand on a much deeper level, the desire to want to protect and preserve one’s fertility so that the option of having a child with my own genetic make-up is a possibility. If I were diagnosed with cancer or another illness threatening my reproductive potential, would that force me to reconsider my social role as a woman? Would I at least want the opportunity to discuss my reproductive options so that infertility would not have to be a defining characteristic of my post-cancer life?

These issues as well as those related to pregnancy, birth and fertility are a part of a larger discussion in the emerging field of oncofertility. As demonstrated above, cancer and infertility are not just defined by medical factors, they are also someone’s personal experience embedded in a larger societal and cultural context. In “Placing the History of Oncofertility,” Sarah Rodriguez, PhD argues that society, culture and personal issues all coincide along with medical factors to influence the field of oncofertility and will continue to shape the field requiring a deeper inspection of oncofertility’s history in an attempt to better understand how it impacts the lives of women. Rodriguez’s chapter can be found in Oncofertility: Ethical, Legal, Social, and Medical Perspectives.

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