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'I realised she didn’t want me to get pregnant because that would impact me so much with chemo'

How does it feel to go through cancer treatment when you could potentially get pregnant?

CANCER ISN’T A thing that many of want to think about let alone talk about. It’s a horrible disease that nearly everyone including myself haven been affected by in some way. It is also not the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions the 8th Amendment and yet the two are linked.

PastedImage-47846 Source: Sam Boal, Rollingnews.ie

My own mother was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer a number of years ago and up until now, I didn’t realise that she was constantly being asked if she was pregnant when receiving treatment. I never asked because up until the last few months like a lot of us I didn’t even think about it.

To think a woman of her age with two grown up kids (I’m 23 and my brother is 20) is still being asked these questions fills me with rage. But she’s being asked these questions because legally she has to be, because if she was to become pregnant, then there’s a possibility that her treatment would have to stop.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

I will stress now that this isn’t the case for everyone and there are certain cancers where you can be treated while pregnant. More information on that can be found here.

Áine O’Connell was diagnosed with Stage One Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2017 and told me that when she was diagnosed initially her reproductive rights weren’t to the forefront of her thoughts.

At the time I wasn’t thinking ‘oh my reproductive rights’, it just didn’t occur to me. I’ve been very pro choice for years, probably since Savita died. But it wasn’t really until I got diagnosed that anything hit home with me.

So what made it hit home for her?

I went for a conversation after I was diagnosed with my oncology nurse and it was very much ‘wash your hands, your hair is going to fall out so maybe cut it off first etc. Then she asked my parents to step out of the room. It was just me and Niall [Áine's boyfriend] and she started chatting to us about relationships and chemo.
Then she looked at me and said ‘Don’t get pregnant’ and I replied ‘I don’t intend to’ and she said ‘But really, don’t get pregnant’ and she didn’t say much more and I didn’t press her for much more. It wasn’t until I got home where I thought about it and realised ‘She didn’t want me to get pregnant because that would impact me so much with chemo’.

Becoming pregnant while undergoing cancer treatment is one of the worst things that can happen to you. Nobody would ever make light of a cancer diagnosis but the reality in Ireland is that a lot of the time, cancer treatment would have to cease if the person was to become pregnant. The person would have to go abroad for a termination or cease treatment entirely until the pregnancy was over.

This is exactly what happened to Michelle Harte who had to travel for a termination while suffering from cancer in 2010. She missed several weeks of treatment because of trying to arrange travel and because of the Eighth Amendment. She had to be helped onto the plane because she was so ill. She died in 2011 yet she may still be alive today had she not had to stop her treatment for 5 weeks due to the Eighth Amendment.

Michelle Harte’s story is like something from a dystopian novel rather than a picture of life in modern Ireland. It’s a story that Áine reflects on constantly.

Every day I’ve spent in remission which is since last July, I have been like ‘What if I was in that situation?’ Even if you’re post 14 weeks (the gestation point after which you can get chemotherapy) and you only need chemo, it’s not like Panadol, it’s literally cell destroying drugs.
It’s so toxic and tough on your body to the point that I’m finished chemo a year and I’m still kind of rebuilding myself. I’m still sick all the time, my lungs are still screwed, so many things, it screws up so much. It’s just beyond comprehension and I’m extremely grateful that I wasn’t in that situation.’

Why are we as a country saying that someone who is suffering from cancer should have their treatment stopped if they’re pregnant? Why are we asking people to make a choice between their own treatment and a pregnancy? What reasonable country does this to it’s own people?

Think of the worst hangover you’ve ever had. Now think about getting on a plane to London with the worst hangover you’ve ever had but this hangover is also making your hair fall out and your nails turn black and making you feel like you’re literally rotting from the inside out and you’ve to go get on a plane for a termination because your life and treatment depends on it? Nope. It’s not ok.

The 8th Amendment was brought in to prevent abortions but we all know that it failed in that regard. Instead it has acted like a blanket, suffocating anyone who has the ability to become pregnant.

It does not take account of circumstance be it medical, economical or any other circumstance. It a black and white solution to something that has 4.5 million shades of grey.

I think we’re failing anyone who is not well in this state at present. We’re failing healthy people who can get pregnant obviously, we are also failing people who are sick and people who are vulnerable and people who have a million things in their mind that are not ‘abortion access’.

If Ireland has any compassion, then we will stop failing our most vulnerable people. Migrant women, asylum seekers, people with cancer, people with chronic illnesses all need our yes votes, now more than ever. We’re failing them every day as In Her Shoes has shown.

Don’t let there be another Michelle Harte. She deserved better and Ireland failed her. We cannot continue to fail people like Michelle anymore.

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About the author:

Rachel O'Neill

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