In 2003, "Anna" was diagnosed with cancer and had to have her uterus removed. With the help of researchers from the Sahlgrenska Academy, she will now be one of the first women in the world to receive a new uterus transplanted from her mother.
This is Anna’s story.
“The cancer diagnosis came very abruptly. The most recent cytology test had shown cell changes but after a check-up a few weeks later I was told that it looked normal again. I was 22 years old and thought: Great that it went away! Three years later, the doctors found a cervical tumour.
This time, things moved very quickly. I had been told something which sent me into a panic: “You have cancer!”
My cervix, lymph nodes, other body tissue and my uterus – they all had to go. I cried for five days. Then I had the operation.
For a time after the operation I was full of super energy – I was going to beat this thing. While everybody around me was sad, I was invincible and totally determined not to be affected. Two months after the operation, I was back at work. I had avoided having to undergo painful radiotherapy and the only physical sign of my cancer was a scar on my tummy. I buried the mental pain and many feelings, such as sorrow and despair, I suppressed completely. A year after the operation, reality caught up with me and I went into a depression. This saved me as it meant that everything I had suppressed was now released.
It took me a long time to understand and mentally process what my operation meant. From being fatally ill, I was now a cancer survivor. Along with this, however, came the awareness that I could never have birth children. The thought had not struck me before. I was used to leading a regular ‘Svensson’ type life and this was a variant of it which just did not exist. My life should have been: Leave school, get a 7 to 4 job and start a family. The realisation that I was no longer like others and that I was not going to live in that safe ‘family bubble’ was a shock. My life had reached a critical point. Who am I if I cannot be a mother? What am I going to do with my life now?
I moved home, had a couple of relationships which ended and moved home again. For a long time I suppressed any thoughts of childlessness. I built up a protective barrier and tried to convince myself of the positive effects of not having children. This shielded me. Eventually, however, I had to confront my feelings.
I met the man I wanted to share my life with and the question of children was with us right from day one. We talked about the possibility of going abroad and getting help from a surrogate mother. Adoption, on the other hand, has not been an alternative for us. This is partly because cancer patients have difficulty in gaining consent to adopt and partly because the adoption process is very long and distressing. Both of these alternatives meant others telling us how we should live in order to have a child. With a uterus transplant, all of the decisions would be my own.
In 2006, I read on the Internet about Mats Brännström and the possibility of a uterus transplant. I sent him an e-mail and in reply I was told that transplants would be “a possible alternative in the future.”
In 2007, he invited me to a medical congress where he would be giving a lecture on the techniques involved. That is how it all started. The progress made on uterus transplants also made a hole in my protective barrier. The possibility that could have a transplant has given me a new situation in life. I now dare to say that I do in fact want to have children and that in my heart I have always grieved over not being able to have birth children. I dare to hope and dare to long for the day.
It is a great feeling to be part of all this. I am aware of the critics who have said that this is all some kind of ‘luxury’ treatment which people should not spend time and money on. To be honest, this kind of criticism makes me angry. The resources of the health service are not just needed to save lives but also to help give people a good life quality. If I had suffered from breast cancer and was to receive a new breast then I do not think many people would oppose this.
There are also surgical techniques to treat obesity and burns. But now we are talking about a uterus and suddenly this is considered ‘unethical’. To me, it is about restoring a bodily function which I used to have and which I now need in order to have children. Surgery, which once took my uterus, can now give me back another one.
Of course, it makes me nervous. I think about the operation a lot. This is much because it reminds me of the operation when they took away my uterus, which was a traumatic experience. But I have never really felt any hesitation. I am in the hands of some of the world’s most skilful surgeons and I feel secure in the fact that they have prepared me for this for ten years. Everything has been thoroughly examined and prepared. The surgery which my mother will undergo I have myself been through. It is one of the commonest operations performed on women. When it comes to my operation, I know it is the first time it will be carried out but sewing up blood vessels is something transplant surgeons have done many, many times before. My operation is a simpler one than my mother’s.
According to the doctors, the prospects are good. My mother is still young and she had three children without any problems. She is in good health and her uterus is apparently in great shape! The surgeons have performed exploratory keyhole surgery on me and things look OK. My boyfriend and I have also been through two in vitro fertilisations which were also successful. We have ten frozen fertilised eggs.
I have been very careful to make my mother feel that she does not have to do what she is doing. My mother, however, is totally focused upon my welfare. My boyfriend and I feel secure together and I feel that if there is anybody I want a child with, it is him. We know that there are no guarantees though. Even if the transplant goes well and all the conditions seem right it is still not certain that I will became pregnant. If no children come of this, we have a good life anyway. We have been handed a fantastic opportunity and if it succeeds then that will be a wonderful bonus.”
Note: "Anna" is a made up name.