The news of our first positive pregnancy test was still sinking in as we drove to Wilmington for my mother-in-law’s wedding.
Earlier that morning, we had taken a beta test to confirm. As we waited for a phone call from the doctor to let us know the results, all I could think about was sharing the news and all the baby planning ahead.
I’d been off my hormone-blocking breast cancer medication for exactly six months; we were excited it had happened so fast. I was only allowed two years off my medication, so time was of the essence.
We had dreamed of becoming parents for years. Finally, it seemed cancer was taking a back seat.
But as we sped along the familiar route, pain started to course through my abdomen.
Having struggled with gastrointestinal issues ever since chemotherapy, I laughed it off at first, thinking it was just a bad case of gas pains. After the third bathroom stop, I weakly stumbled to the car, shaking and sweating.
Ever since my mastectomy and subsequent surgeries, physical pain triggers my anxiety. The two become so intertwined it’s hard to differentiate the physical pain from the anxiety symptoms.
My ever logical husband, meanwhile, beelined for the closest Walgreens, desperate for pregnancy-safe medication to alleviate my pain.
While waiting at the counter, my phone rang. I answered, expecting my favorite nurse Wendy’s voice on the other line. Instead I was met with my doctor’s voice.
Normally matter-of-fact, her quiet, soothing tone sent up an immediate warning. I knew what followed would break my heart.
“Your numbers are dropping,” she said. “That, combined with your pain, has me very concerned.”
In a daze, I stumbled to the car, processing her words. “Monitor the pain closely. If it worsens, go right to the emergency room.” At that point, it was too late to turn around and head home, so we continued toward what was supposed to be a joyful family weekend.
The next few hours are a blur. I remember arriving at the condo, collapsing on the floor, crying in pain and waiting in agony for the ambulance to arrive. For many cancer survivors, hospitals and doctors can trigger a host of negative memories. For me, they’ve always been a source of comfort and protection.
On this day it was no different. Though my heart was breaking into a million pieces, I knew those ambulance medics would care for my body, and in that moment, it was the only thing that could be controlled.
Four hours later, the verdict: “It’s not a viable pregnancy. We have to operate.” The words stung me like I had been slapped in the face.
Somehow the words carried a sense of finality. Though the physical pain was under control, I could no longer ignore the emotions. It was over. The baby couldn’t be saved. Tears stung my cheeks as I sobbed uncontrollably.
Before the ectopic pregnancy, my hope was unwavering. Despite my cancer diagnosis three years prior, hope for my future family guided me forward.
I had faith our family was coming. While the clock was ticking, I was still optimistic.
Following our first loss, though, my hope was shattered. I had trouble seeing beyond each day and felt betrayed by my body. It was hard to see how I could carry on in the midst of such pain.
I would be challenged many more times by grief before finally reaching our season of joy.
Little did I know that around the next bend, a successful frozen embryo transfer was waiting for us. This time around, while we had a little longer to revel in the joy, that hope, too, was ripped from us with the dreaded words, “There is no heartbeat,” at our seven-week ultrasound.
Following our second loss, it was my relationship with my body that suffered most. My mind was stronger this time around, but my body had taken a beating.
The D and C was my seventh procedure in three years. I began to feel disconnected, like I was living in an empty shell. My heart no longer felt a sense of connection to the body I moved in. I felt fragile and weak, unable to trust my body to recover.
So, how on earth did I heal from this nightmare? It was the community around me that gave me the strength to carry on.
Women from around the world sent me messages on social media, sharing their own stories of loss and the memories of the babies they once carried but never got to hold.
I realized that I, too, could carry the memory of these babies forward with me. The joy of the positive test results, the ultrasound appointments, those gorgeous photos of the tiny embryo — each memory stays with me.
From those around me who had walked this path before, I learned that moving on didn’t mean I was forgetting.
Guilt, though, still lived in the back of my mind. I struggled to find a way to honor my memories while also moving on. Some choose to plant a tree, or celebrate a significant date. For me, I wanted a way to reconnect to my body.
I decided a tattoo was the most meaningful way for me to reestablish the bond. It wasn’t the loss I wanted to hold on to, but the memories of those sweet embryos that once grew within my womb.
The design honors all my body went through as well as symbolizing my body’s ability to heal and once again carry a child.
Now behind my ear those sweet memories remain, staying with me as I build a new life filled with hope and joy. These children I lost will always be a part of my story. For anyone who has lost a child, I’m sure you can relate.
Slowly but surely, I learned to live with both guilt and hope intertwined. Then, too, came the small moments of joy.
Little by little, I started enjoying life again.
The moments of joy started small and grew with time: sweating out the pain in a hot yoga class, late-night snuggles with my hubby watching our favorite show, laughing with a girlfriend in New York when I got my first period following the miscarriage, bleeding through my pants in the line to a NYFW show.
Somehow I was proving to myself that despite all I lost, I was still me. I may never be whole again in the sense that I knew before, but just like I did after cancer, I’d continue to reinvent myself.
We slowly opened our hearts to start thinking about a family again. Another frozen embryo transfer, surrogacy, adoption? I began researching all our options.
In early April, I started getting impatient, ready to try another frozen embryo transfer. Everything hinged on my body being ready, and it didn’t seem to be cooperating. Every appointment confirmed my hormones weren’t yet at the desired baseline.
Disappointment and fear began to threaten the relationship I had rebuilt with my body, hope for the future waning.
I had been spotting for two days and was convinced that my period had finally arrived. We were headed in on Sunday for another ultrasound and blood check. My husband rolled over on Friday night and said to me, “I think you should take a pregnancy test.”
I pushed the idea from my head, too scared to even acknowledge the possibility of a natural pregnancy.
I was so focused on Sunday’s next step toward our frozen embryo transfer, the thought of natural conception was the furthest thing from my mind. Saturday morning, he pushed me again.
To appease him — with no doubt it would be negative — I peed on a stick and went downstairs. When I returned, my husband was standing there, holding the stick with a goofy grin.
“It’s positive,” he said.
I literally thought he was joking. It sounded impossible, especially after all we’d been through. How on earth did this happen?
Somehow all that time I thought my body wasn’t cooperating, it was doing exactly what it was supposed to do. It had healed from my D and C in January and the subsequent hysteroscopy in February. It somehow managed to form a beautiful baby all on its own.
While this pregnancy has been riddled with challenges of its own, somehow my mind and body have carried me forward with hope — hope for the strength of my body, my spirit, and most of all, for this baby growing inside me.
Fear may have threatened my hope time and time again, but I refuse to give up. There’s no doubt that I have changed. But I know I’m stronger for it.
Whatever you’re facing, know you’re not alone. While your loss, despair, and pain may seem insurmountable now, there will come a time when you, too, will find joy again.
In the worst moments of pain following my emergency ectopic surgery, I never thought I would make it to the other side — to motherhood.
But as I write to you now, I’m in awe of the painful journey I’ve faced to get here, as well as the power of hope as it carried me forward.
I now know that everything I went through was preparing me for this new season of joy. Those losses, however painful, have shaped who I am today — not just as a survivor, but as a fierce and determined mother, ready to bring new life into this world.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that the path forward may not be on your timeline and it may not be exactly as you’d planned. But something good is waiting for you just around the bend.
Anna Crollman is a style enthusiast, lifestyle blogger, and breast cancer thriver. She shares her story and a message of self-love and wellness through her blog and social media, inspiring women around the globe to thrive in the face of adversity with strength, self-confidence, and style.