How I Battled Fibroids, Cysts, Endometriosis, And PCOS To Eventually Birth To Two Healthy Babies
By Helen Stephens
My 20s were not at all consumed by a desire for babies. While other women my age were overwhelmed with baby fever and contemplating the names of their future children, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted kids. I considered the possibility of starting a family, but figured if I wanted kids, I had plenty of time. The beauty of youth is that you truly believe you’re invincible. You live with almost unwavering certainty that tomorrow is promised. You believe that all your plans for life will pan out the way you expect. I was no exception. I hadn’t considered that my body being at war with the fibroids, cysts, and endometriosis that were wreaking havoc on my reproductive system might mean I didn’t have nearly as much time as I thought.
All the signs were there that there was a serious problem. I was on a cocktail of medications to treat the symptoms of my diseases and was constantly sick, suffering with incredible pain from the fibroids and cysts that had invaded my body. My skin was breaking out. My internal flora seemed to be completely out of balance and I was making frequent visits to the pharmacy to treat recurring yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis. I knew this couldn’t be normal. Frustrated and confused by my symptoms, I asked the pharmacist if I might be experiencing side effects from the medications. What she told me sent me directly to my doctor. There, I received a new diagnosis – Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). At 25 years old, I had a running list of reproductive disorders that would prove to be one of the biggest challenges of my life.
With a new treatment plan, I continued to live my life and advance my career. Five years later, the implications of my diagnoses suddenly dawned on me. After my thirtieth birthday, I began to think about marriage and kids. I was ready to do all the things I’d put off in my 20s. However, my troubled reproductive health loomed terrifyingly in front of me. I’d been under the knife several times to cut away the cysts, fibroids and endometrial tissue that were growing around my uterus and ovaries, and the conversations with my doctors weren’t reassuring.
Thoughts of my sister’s struggle with endometriosis and the fact that she started her family years before me began weighing on my mind. But it was news from my mother that really pushed me — she was also dealing with reproductive problems and would likely need to have a hysterectomy. Any doubt I had about having children completely dissolved; I wanted children, and I wanted them immediately. I was single when I had this revelation, but I wasn’t going to put my desire for children on hold to wait for Prince Charming. Working in the field of reproductive health and fertility gave me unique insight into the options available for me. I’ve always been a forward thinking woman and the idea of being a single mother did not scare me. However, whether I was waiting for him or not, my Prince Charming showed up in a Chicago restaurant one night to sweep me off my feet.
Only fate could have been responsible for our meeting. I’d flown out to Chicago for a work conference that I almost had to miss due to yet another surgery. Marcus was in town because he had plane tickets that had to be used that weekend or they would expire. When he and a friend of his approached my group of girlfriends, it was the advances of his tipsy friend I declined. In his anger, the friend stormed off leaving Marcus behind. We exchanged business cards, but when I called him, he was too busy to see me. When he called me back a month later, he got a cool response. However, he warmed me up with a winning sense of humor, his cultural and spiritual awareness, and our shared interest in books and events. A year later, we were engaged and sitting in my OBGYN’s office discussing our options for having children.
It’s hard to describe the feeling that gripped my heart when she told us just how severe my fertility issues were. Sitting there, I came face-to-face with the fact that I might never be able to conceive or carry my own children. It was a blow I probably should have expected, but it floored me all the same. We were advised to see a fertility specialist to weigh all our options. Marcus and I spoke to a number of specialists and researchers and did our own research, poring over every article we could get our hands on. I’d been careful about my eating and exercise, practiced yoga and meditation to manage the symptoms of my endometriosis, PCOS and fibroids and sought spiritual and emotional support because it was important to me to treat my issues holistically.
I also leaned heavily on the people in my life who shared my pain. A close friend who also suffered with infertility and never gave birth to her own children, was a huge support. I poured out my fears and my heartache to her. My mother and sister offered me much needed love and empathy. I also became incredibly close to Marcus’ mother, who adopted him when she found out in her 30s that she was unable to conceive. It was so important for me to be connected with another Black woman who had walked the path I was stumbling down, knowing not just the physical and emotional struggle, but the weight of the cultural stigma around infertility in our community. And, of course, Marcus, who could always be found standing steadfastly by my side, giving me his full support every step of the way. With yet another surgery scheduled to remove a sizable ovarian cyst, tragedy struck again: my father was dying of cancer. I was heartbroken and knew I had to go see him for what might be the last time. I arranged to postpone the surgery against my doctor’s stern warnings that I might do irreparable damage
to my ovaries by waiting. But I needed to see my father.
Even with cancer claiming 90% of his brain, as I sat by his bedside, my father found the strength to encourage me to stay hopeful and to visualize the children I wanted. His death broke my heart, but his words renewed my hope. I returned to New Jersey, prepared to have the surgery I’d postponed. I was ready to believe that this surgery would be the one that would help us get pregnant.
Prior to surgery, I was struck with incredible pain. I imagined the worst. I’d disobeyed the doctor’s orders and now I’d compromised my ovaries and any chance of conceiving. We rushed to the doctor and after running a bevy of tests, she returned with a result that was completely unexpected: a positive pregnancy test. If I had the planned surgery, I would have lost my baby.
Nine months and one surgery later, I gave birth to a little girl with a dimpled smile that could light up an entire room. We named her Summer, for the new season and the sunshine she brought into our lives. Nineteen months later, I delivered a healthy baby boy, named Miles for the way he danced in my womb to the Miles Davis records I love.
Had anyone told me a few years before they were born that I would have conceived and birthed two children, I would have had my doubts. They are the lights of my life and my proudest accomplishment. My happiest moments are the ones I spend with my husband and children, reading and praying at night.
The joy I get from my family puts a warmth in my heart that begs to be shared. I want for every woman who is suffering with infertility to know that the children they desire are not an impossible dream. I’ve worked in the field of infertility for over 10 years, and I’ve seen so many women either unaware of the options that are available to them or afraid to take them for fear of being judged. African-American women like myself, and our Latina sisters are often afraid to explore their options because of the stigma that surrounds fertility treatments in our communities. Their hearts and spirits need as much treatment as their bodies do. I started Oshun Fertility specifically for women of African and Latina descent to provide them with not just the medical treatments for infertility, but the emotional and spiritual support that helped me through my own doubt and pain. Because these women deserve to know that what seems like a nightmare can end in a dream come true. My life, my family, are a testament to that.