scorecardThe medicine that is keeping my partner cancer-free put me at risk. No one told us if I got pregnant, the fetus could have severe complications.
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The medicine that is keeping my partner cancer-free put me at risk. No one told us if I got pregnant, the fetus could have severe complications.

Brianna Wilson   

The medicine that is keeping my partner cancer-free put me at risk. No one told us if I got pregnant, the fetus could have severe complications.
LifeScience4 min read
  • In 2020, my boyfriend was diagnosed with a rare type of blood cancer.
  • After chemotherapy, he was put on a daily anti-cancer pill to avoid reoccurrence.

It had been a few months since my partner and I clasped hands tightly while he swallowed 27 pills, his first round of chemotherapy, in a dim hospital room. Despite the long journey, we held onto hope as fervently as each other's hands.

Anyone facing cancer is unlucky, to put it mildly. But Bryan had an especially bad break. In 2020, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer. Fewer than 1% of patients are diagnosed at 34 or younger; he was one of them.

After several rounds of chemotherapy, Bryan's doctors recommended he begin the next phase of treatment: a daily anti-cancer pill he'd likely take for the rest of his life.

Perched on the end of his hospital-like bed in his parents' basement, I pored over an information packet about the drug and its side effects.

My brow furrowed and pulse quickened. "Did you know about this? Did your doctor tell you?" I asked.

"No, not that I remember," he said.

I couldn't get pregnant while he is on meds

Yet, there it was, written alongside common side effects like nausea and hair loss: "Men, if your female partner becomes pregnant, you should call your healthcare provider right away."

I exhaled, thinking: And then what? I later learned that his medication, Revlimid, can cause "severe, life-threatening birth defects or death of a baby if the mother or father is taking this medicine at the time of conception or during pregnancy."

Like other lifesaving drugs to treat cancer and chronic illnesses, this medication shows up in the sperm of males taking it — and can cause "risk of birth defects, stillbirths, and spontaneous abortions." These effects are considered so problematic that Revlimid is one of just 60 prescription drugs, out of more than 19,000, in an Federal Drug Administration program that allows the agency to control access to medications that present serious safety concerns.

The very treatment Bryan needed to save his life could harm me — or our hypothetical fetus. The packet didn't say it explicitly, but the implication was clear: I'd almost certainly have to consider an abortion if I got pregnant during his treatment.

I would potentially need an abortion if I became accidentally pregnant

In June 2022, the Supreme Court ruled on Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which revoked the federal right to abortion. Without federal protections, more than a dozen states effectively limited or banned it altogether. This post-Dobbs reality puts women in situations like mine at risk of being unknowingly, irreconcilably harmed, perhaps without warning. They are left without a solution in many states — while some lawmakers hope to grow that list.

To me, it's imperative for those officials to learn about how their decisions can impact cancer care — and those receiving it.

In our case, we'd follow the drugmaker's instructions and use two forms of birth control to avoid that possibility. But no method is perfect. And some women may be exposed to sexual partners on Revlimid or drugs with similar effects without their knowledge.

The medication that's saving him puts me at risk

With all the changes that cancer brings to a relationship, we weren't going to add celibacy to the list — especially since many myeloma patients take Revlimid for years. After all, we didn't elect to join the clergy; one of us was simply unfortunate enough to have cancer.

Roe was our safety net. But in the states where the right to abortion is now limited or eliminated altogether, pregnant people may be forced to carry nonviable or high-risk pregnancies to term — if the fetus survives that long. The consequences are dire: Medication required to save one life may put another at risk.

Bryan's oncologist was required to discuss with Bryan the reproductive risks the medication posed to him — and to me. Maybe this happened, but Bryan didn't recall it — which I chalk up to "chemo brain," a term cancer patients often use to describe thinking and memory problems they experience during treatment. One thing is for certain: I never received the warning, and I would have been clueless had I not researched it on my own.

Ours is just one story, but it speaks to the many ways reproductive health and cancer care are impacted by state laws, both current and proposed that limit abortion access. A post-Dobbs world puts women — some maybe knowingly, others maybe not—at risk of developing unviable or dangerous pregnancies that may require a personal decision about whether to have an abortion. Except, in many states, the decision is no longer theirs.

Bryan's cancer diagnosis reverberates throughout our lives and will continue to in our future. It infiltrates our most intimate decisions, demanding a seat at the table we didn't invite it to. Cancer will dictate how we create a family, limit our career opportunities, and threaten our financial well-being. Now, lawmakers want a seat at our table, too — and it's getting crowded.

Brianna Wilson is a Minneapolis-based writer passionate about health policy and reproductive rights. She holds a master's degree in communication from The Ohio State University and is the senior manager for advocacy communications at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.