Our Party of Four

Infertility is hard. Infertility after cancer, in my opinion, can be even harder. There are additional, difficult barriers. Cervivor sisters, I don’t say this to scare you! Our journey to my family was entirely worth it, but I hope that by sharing a bit of my journey, you can be a little more prepared. Infertility can be a rollercoaster and for my family it turned out to be an even bumpier ride than we could have ever expected.

Shortly after treatment, one of my very best friends approached me about being a surrogate for us. I was still in graduate school and I wasn’t married to my husband yet, but the timing was good for her and we were ready so why not. We planned to get married and already had embryos together after all.  I never expected this process to be easy, but I didn’t expect to need approval from the hospital’s ethics board before we could attempt to use our own embryos. Believe it or not, the hospital where we had and stored our embryos did require this, though. Apparently, they had concerns that I did not have a normal life expectancy since it hadn’t yet been five years since treatment and that I was not married. I’m sorry, what?! I really didn’t see why either of those concerns were relevant being that if I had not experienced cancer, I could have conceived without anyone’s prior approval. Anyway, after jumping through all of their hoops including meeting several times with their licensed therapist, we were approved to try. My best friend tried, not once, but twice, to carry our frozen embryos for us. We are forever grateful, but unfortunately it didn’t work. I began to research adoption.

The more I researched adoption, the more I got discouraged. I learned that each country and the adoption agencies within those countries have their own set of rules and regulations regarding who can and cannot adopt, including health restrictions for the intended parents. And each country has its own fluctuating policy concerning whether cancer survivors can adopt. For example, China previously allowed cancer survivors who had passed the five-year-mark to adopt, but changed the rules in 2007 to not allow cancer survivors to adopt. Never? That was discouraging to say the least. I also learned that while you don’t necessarily have to be married to adopt, if you are married, agencies typically want you to be married for a certain length of time before completing your home study which is part of the adoption process. In the United States, each state has its own laws regarding adoption and surrogacy, so it can be rather confusing. We weren’t sure what to do.

But we knew we didn’t want to wait five years to adopt. So, we decided to turn to surrogacy again. A few days before my wedding in 2010, I found out that based on my AMH (Anti-Mullerian Hormone) I didn’t have enough quality eggs for the clinic to even attempt to harvest any more eggs from my body. I was devastated, again. But my husband still wanted to marry me and we had faith that we would one day have our family. I would not have a biological child or carry a baby, but we could look into adoption later or maybe surrogacy with donor eggs.

We moved back to my hometown shortly after we got married. We were enjoying our new life as a married couple, but we still felt like something was missing. We still wanted a baby. While we were open to adoption, it hadn’t yet been five years. I felt like my life had still been put on hold. I decided to research surrogacy using donor eggs. That’s when I found there are two types of surrogacy: traditional and gestational. With traditional surrogacy, the surrogate donates her own egg therefore can conceive through artificial insemination (it doesn’t require IVF). With gestational surrogacy, the egg either comes from the intended mother or another donor; the surrogate is not genetically related to the child and IVF is required.

I had never heard of traditional surrogacy, but for someone like me who didn’t have viable eggs, it seemed like a logical choice. If we were to find the right surrogate willing to complete a traditional surrogacy, we wouldn’t need to identify a separate egg donor. Was there such an angel out there?! I didn’t know, but it was worth looking into. Within the hour, I had created a profile on a site with information and discussion boards for both gestational and traditional surrogacy. Literally within a few minutes, I had a friend request. Aww, someone wants to be my friend! And, maybe my surrogate?! Although I knew it was probably too good to be true, I read my first message. After that, we couldn’t stop messaging each other. We were both so excited. It was kind of like we were dating. I mean, we really needed to get to know each other. I learned about her family including her husband and two girls. I learned about why she wanted to be a surrogate and why she was choosing to be a traditional surrogate. She had tried to be a gestational surrogate but after seeing how much time and money was lost when IVF didn’t work, she had decided she was open to either. I told her my cancer story and made sure she was aware that it hadn’t yet been five years. 

It hadn’t quite been five years, but my gyn oncologist was willing to write a letter saying that I was N.E.D. and had a near normal life expectancy. We researched domestic versus international, open versus closed, and independent versus agency adoptions. We decided to go with a domestic adoption agency. After completing our home study, which by the way was possible without waiting the full five years, our agency created an online profile for us. We were able to login and see how many people viewed our profile each day – it was addicting. A couple short months later we were selected by a birth mother. She was a beautiful woman who we ended up meeting and we are forever grateful to, but this piece of our story had a tragic ending when our baby girl didn’t survive her delivery due to something called Vasa Previa. I was a nurse practitioner, but had never even heard of that before. Thank goodness it’s pretty rare but once again, I was left devastated.

We nearly gave up. Maybe we weren’t meant to be parents. Maybe we were trying to force something that was never in the cards. We didn’t know if we were strong enough to try again, but after our traditional surrogate offered to try again we decided to try one more time. We already knew each other and already had contracts so other than travel expenses it really couldn’t hurt to try one final attempt. Guess what? This next attempt was successful! And, nine months later our beautiful, strong-willed son was born!

For a long time, we thought he would be our only child – which would have been okay! We had been through so much and had a slight complication during delivery with him that scared us. We decided maybe we should stop and count our blessings which we did. We were and are so incredibly grateful to have our Carter who we wouldn’t change for anything in this world. But, he started asking for a sibling.

I think it started after he watched Boss Baby! He asked nearly every day. When we were at a table for four, he started pointing at the empty chair saying, ‘someone is missing there’. When we went out of town and he stayed in a room with twin beds, he said, ‘someone is supposed to be sleeping there’. Eventually, David and I decided that you know what, he was right maybe something or someone was missing. Our amazing surrogate (my hero!) had been willing to try again but we just weren’t sure we were strong enough. For a time, our fear had gotten stronger than our faith and there were so many obstacles in our way.

One day, after dropping Carter off at school, I went to the beach to think things over. I was laying on a beach the first time I connected with our surrogate in an online chat room (yes, we met as strangers in a chat room but have become friends/family!) so it seemed appropriate. And you know what? There happened to be a beautiful rainbow that day and I always paid attention to rainbows after having my ‘rainbow baby’. This was a definite sign. We at least had to try or we would always wonder. Without a uterus, there was no chance of me accidentally getting pregnant. It was again going to take time, patience, teamwork and above all – love!

The first attempt worked! Our daughter was born on March 5th. I didn’t carry her, but the midwife let me help deliver her just like the doctor had done with my son. I was honored to be the first person to ever hold both of my children. We are now a family of four. There is no longer an empty seat at our table. Carter, Mommy and Daddy could not be any happier. Our surrogate and her family are doing great. Her amazing girls are happy that Carter has a sibling. Carter is already the best big brother to baby Caroline!

None of this was easy, none of this was in my plan. But to have my children I would do it all again and again. My kids are my world. For now, I am living my happily ever after. I am forever grateful for all of the women that helped me become the mommy I am loving being today. I will forever be grateful for the miracles of surrogacy, egg donation and adoption.

If you are dealing with cancer and/or infertility and want to reach out, please do. Don’t hesitate. I can’t tell you whether surrogacy or adoption are right for your family, but I will help you research and ask the tough questions. I am very open to talking and trying to help however I can. If you aren’t dealing with these particular issues, but have your own dream or goal you are working towards, don’t give up. Always remember, FAITH > FEAR.

Kristin Ferree was diagnosed with cervical cancer December of 2008, at the age of 25. After treatment left her infertile, she vowed not to let cancer keep her from her dream of becoming a mother. Now a 10-year Cervivor, she lives in Morehead City, NC with her loving husband, David, two miracle babies, Carter and Caroline, and sweet rag-doll kitty, Lilley. She is currently taking time off from being a Family Nurse Practitioner to spend more time with her children and loving every minute of it.

Fertility, Family & Cancer

Four months after our beautiful beach wedding in Tulum, I was diagnosed with early stage cervical cancer.  I had a longstanding history of high-risk HPV and abnormal Pap smears, but it was still a shock for me because I had done everything “right”.  I’m a healthcare professional and was familiar with HPV and the risks of it lingering in my body.  I never missed a Pap smear, biopsy, procedure or follow up, and I still got cervical cancer.  Fortunately, my gynecologic oncologist understood how important fertility was to both myself and my husband, and so I was planning to undergo a fertility-sparing surgery called a radical trachelectomy, where they remove the cervix but not the entire uterus and ovaries.  I met with the onco-fertility team approximately three days after my diagnosis.  They offered to get started right away with egg retrieval and egg or embryo freezing.  I didn’t want to do that unless I absolutely had to since the average cost is about $15,000, and I was still going to have my ovaries after surgery.  In the worst case scenario in which I would need pelvic radiation after surgery, I had six weeks between surgery and the start of radiation to do egg retrieval.  This was a great plan in my mind.

I have always wanted to be a mom.  I’ve been a dog mom for 13 years and have never been more ready to be a mom (to actual people) until I got married in February 2017 to my best friend and partner in life.  We met online, were each other’s first date on one of those popular dating websites, and the rest is history.  We had talked about our future family on multiple occasions prior to getting married, and we wanted to start trying to build our family about a year or so after getting married since I was 32 and not getting any younger.

Three weeks later at my pre-op appointment, I had the shock of my life.  My tumor had doubled in size in only three weeks from three to six centimeters.  My cervix was completely covered in cancer, and I was no longer a surgical candidate since my cancer now had “high risk” features based on how fast it was growing and was now considered locally advanced.  Also, given that my cancer was growing so quickly, it was the recommendation from my gynecologic oncologist and radiation oncologist that I proceed with treatment ASAP.  Given the circumstances and our fear, my husband and I were in agreement to move forward with treatment without doing egg retrieval.  My last resort was to undergo a bilateral ovarian transposition (move my ovaries out of pelvic area) to try to save at least some small piece of my fertility, but more realistically, to attempt to preserve some ovarian function so I didn’t become post-menopausal at age 32.  It was a 50/50 chance to try to preserve my ovarian function and much less of a chance to preserve fertility. 

The ovarian transposition wasn’t successful, and now I’m 34 and post-menopausal.  Fifteen months after the completion of chemo-radiation, my hormone levels are still post-menopausal, and my ovaries don’t show any eggs ready to retrieve.  Sometimes, I feel like my body failed me again (cancer being the first fail), but I have to remind myself it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my body – it was the treatment that did this to me.  The odds were against me, but it wasn’t anyone’s fault, especially my own.

I’ll never know why this happened to me.  Nobody deserves to lose their chance to have a biological child.  Fertility is a loss so great that it cannot be put into words.  I will forever be grateful for my treatment team, support system and my body for healing me, but this loss is permanent and at times, has overshadowed the amazing response to treatment that I was so fortunate to have.  I have gone through every emotion possible over the past 15 months.  The grief that follows is extraordinary.  It is a pain and grief that nobody can fix and no one can comfort.  It is not just my pain though; it is my husband’s pain too.  It is the loss, pain and grief of so many young adult cancer patients and so many couples.  

This past year has been a process.  A process of grief, depression, anxiety, anger and many tears, as well as gratitude, blessings and opportunity.  I have done a lot of personal work, some of which was by myself and some of which involved other people including my husband, family, friends and a counselor.  My onco-fertility team was thoughtful enough to suggest a grief/infertility counselor to help me through this loss.  In seeking the help of a counselor, I have begun to learn to accept my feelings.  I try not to be angry with myself for not pursuing egg retrieval the day I was offered it.  I am trying to practice self-compassion.  

I realize I can and will have children and the family I dreamed of, although not in the way in which I planned.  I acknowledge that sometimes it still hurts, and I will continue to have moments and even periods of time that I will still grieve this loss and re-experience the anger, sadness and hurt all over again.  I understand that this is a part of my life and that’s okay.  I will carry a piece of this grief with me for the rest of my life.  It is not something that goes away, but it is more of something that you learn to live with and something that becomes part of who you are.  It is also a part of my relationship with my husband and will help shape our relationship.  Nothing can prepare you for a cancer diagnosis, and nothing can prepare you for fertility loss.  These life-changing experiences know no boundaries and do not discriminate.  What I have realized though, is fertility loss doesn’t mean I can’t have children or a family.  Cancer has changed my life, but it can’t take this away from me.

Megan Tanner is a 1.5 year cervical cancer survivor, nurse practitioner and pug-lover.  She lives in Houston, TX with her amazing husband, Greg, and their two perfect pugs.  She hopes to one day see full infertility coverage by all employers and health insurance plans in all 50 states.