Making a difficult choice
In April 2005, I was diagnosed
with cancer. It was just two
weeks after the birth of my
ninth baby, and days after my
youngest brother’s death in a car
accident. I stopped breast-feeding
immediately as I needed many
tests including an MRI and CT
scan, the latter of which required
the ingestion of radioactive material.
What’s more, chemotherapy
was next to come. A mother simply
couldn’t nurse with those toxins
rushing through her body.
Immediately upon weaning, I
experienced complications. I had
an allergic reaction to the CT dye.
I also felt relentless mental
anguish of not being able to nourish
and bond with this baby the
way I had the other eight. I felt
guilty. I worried that she might
grow up without me. I was
exhausted from birth, from tending
to a newborn, from dealing with
grief. I was uncertain of my own
life and future.
But the proverbial straw that
broke the camel’s back of my
emotions came when my husband
and I were sitting in the oncologist’s
office, after a tests had been
completed, while my mind was
spinning with the diagnosis, treatment
plan and clinical trial
options. The oncologist ended his
discussion of my future by saying,
“Now before we start, we need to
get you on birth control because
you absolutely must not get pregnant.”
A pregnancy, the doctor
explained, would hamper my
progress, my prognosis and the
ultimate outcome, which was a
nice way of saying that my life
depended on it not happening.
“We practice Natural Family
Planning,” I remember offering
The doctor kindly stated that
chemotherapy would wreak havoc
on my system. I had at least six
months of rigorous treatment
ahead of me. The symptoms of
ovulation could not be relied upon.
Sometimes chemotherapy pushes a
woman into early menopause.
Other times her cycle simply
becomes erratic and irregular,
making determination of fertility
signs difficult. I couldn’t afford to
make a mistake reading my signs.
I was told that if people used NFP
during cancer treatment, they usually
also used a “back up.”
Suddenly this became clear. At
one of the weakest points of my
physical and emotional life I was
going to be morally challenged
too. Herein lay David’s and my
difficult choice: Would we choose
to be fully Catholic and reject artificial
birth control, or choose to
make an exception for ourselves?
As the oncologist delivered his
birth control recommendation
David and I looked at each other.
We simultaneously but quietly
vetoed the idea.
Some Catholics counseled that
our situation was “different.” “You
have a serious reason to avoid a
pregnancy,” they said, “You can’t
be expected to give up relations
too. And besides you have been
open to life.” Others said, “God
will understand birth control is
necessary in this one exceptional
I appreciated the empathy and
the genuine concern behind the
words, but I knew in my heart that
I could not follow something I
knew not to be true. If artificial
birth control were okay for me it
would be okay for another exception,
and then another, and then, of
course for anyone at all. We would
stay the course.
Perhaps you think that a twoweek
post partum, exhausted and
sick woman does not have marital
intimacy as a priority on her mind.
You are right. But if you were
diagnosed with a life-threatening
disease and you thought that you
might die, you would likely begin
to yearn for the love, reassurance
and intimacy that the marital act
provides. The thought of the possibility
of never having that again
was terrifying. Sometimes my
mind would wander too. What if I
died? What if my husband remarried?
What if his new wife were
better, prettier, holier than me? As
I grew bloated from treatment, as
my hair fell out, I continued to feel
ugly and depressed. How could he
still love me? Stay with me? I had
nothing to offer him. It was tempting
for me to reconsider our decision.
In my husband’s mind, however,
the matter was settled. We
would get through this cancer trial
and all it entailed and look forward
to a normal relationship again. I
contacted the Pope Paul VI
Institute, spent hours learning the
nuances of interpreting data in a
situation such as mine, and considered
an ultra-vigilant NFP
approach, ultimately David and I
took the most conservative route.
Six months later, after 12 grueling
treatments I was pronounced
“cancer-free.” I was grateful for
the strength and leadership of my
husband. Our life slowly resumed
to a “new normal,” and now today
we look back on the cancer experience
as just a blip on the screen,
an experience that was extremely
challenging but thankfully in the
past. We are happy we made the
decision we did.
I believe God gave David and
me that time for productive soulsearching
and deep spiritual bonding
together. God offered us a
chance to definitively choose Him,
to grow in maturity and be
strengthened through the myriad
ways that suffering does.
Today I also look at Catholic
couples who struggle with the
Catholic teaching on birth control
and who feel tempted to think that
artificial contraception might be
the answer. I want to encourage
them. Be strong. Stay true to your
faith. You can do this! Even in
exceptional situations, make the
right choice, even if it is the difficult
one. Blessings will follow.
What was your difficult choice?
How has it changed you? Write
me at theresathomaseveryday
THERESA A. THOMAS
Theresa Thomas, is the mother of
nine children and wife of David.