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.

Mother’s Day and Survivorship

Life after cancer can easily be compared to a snow globe.  One that has been shaken vigorously. It can feel like we are plopped down, left to figure out every aspect of life. The cancer community regularly refers to post-cancer life or living life with cancer, as “survivorship.” It certainly is a process and one that comes with some amazing days and moments, but also extremely dark and lonely ones as we adjust to this new life and grieve our old one.

For gynecological cancer survivors, especially survivors of cervical cancer, Mother’s Day can come with an array of feelings. It can be one of the harder days for us, where we find ourselves digging deep for joy. Cervical cancer treatment, more often than not, steals reproductive ability leaving the patient with the decision to pursue fertility preservation or to begin treatment right away. This decision alone can be extremely overwhelming and is one of the first ones the patient must make. Unfortunately, not all patients are given the option, and if they are, not all can afford the cost, leaving the patient to decide….life or death.

Cervivor Dusty & her mom

We recently asked the Cervivor community how they were feeling about the upcoming holiday. As expected, we received a wide range of responses. Prior to asking our community, we thought that perhaps it all depends on where you are in your survivorship. However, most all responses conveyed loss. Even those who had chosen not to be mothers prior to their diagnosis and those who were already moms acknowledged that there is loss and pain in our community that centers around this choice that is often snatched from our hands. For many women in our community, they choose to focus on their own moms and find joy in those relationships. Dusty and her husband chose not to have children prior to cancer, but she recalls her mother’s loving kindness on this day, “My mom spent Mother’s Day the year I had cancer with me, taking care of me as the painful side effects of my treatment became too much. It’s a bittersweet memory that reminds me just how wonderful my mom really is.

Paulette and her husband (far right) with her mother and extended family.

Paulette is another cervical cancer survivor who made the decision long before cancer, that she did not want to be a mother. Her approach to the holiday is to honor her own mom,” I chose to not have children, so I’ve never felt the loss of never being able to be a mom. I have a difficult at times relationship with my mom, but I do respect her and celebrate that day with her.”

Sadly, there are also women in our community who have both lost their mother’s and their own ability to have children, making Mother’s Day doubly difficult. Heidi lost her mom nearly eight years ago, but the grief is still vivid, “Mother’s day is very difficult. I lost my own mom in 2000. And because of the cervical and uterine cancer, I lost the chance to get to have kids of my own that I really wanted.”

Being a mother prior to cancer doesn’t exempt you from the pain of losing fertility. These women can be overlooked in the discussion.

Cervivor Ana and her two children.

Ana, who was a mom at the time of her diagnosis confesses, “I grapple with being grateful for what I have and sad for the loss of not being able to have more children.”

Mary and family.

Mary is another survivor who had children prior to her treatment. She admits that having that decision taken out of her hands feels unfair,” I am grateful for the two I have and, I considered myself done so I’m at peace with what it is. I hated that the option was taken off the table for me, but I had to live for the ones I have.”

Like all other aspects of survivorship, grieving fertility and/or motherhood looks different for everyone. It’s not linear. Some days are just better than others. For some women, like Tina who never had the opportunity, reminders are always there but it can hit harder and out of the blue like in this conversation with her neighbor.  “When I first moved into my neighborhood one of the moms said to me ‘my daughter can’t wait for you to have kids so she can babysit.’ I was at a loss for words. I love celebrating my mom, but I find it to be a hard reminder of what was taken from me.”  There are many Cervivors like Lauren. Lauren lost her fertility at a very young age. She chose treatment to save her life, but not without costs that she lives with daily. Mother’s Day hits hard for me. As do pregnancy announcements and baby showers. Lost my fertility due to cervical cancer at 23. Knowing I won’t ever be pregnant is hard sometimes.” 

Tina and her fur babies

Cancer is just unfair. The diagnosis, the treatment, and the life you’re left with after can feel like a shell of who you were before. Survivorship is hard, and many days can feel harder than cancer itself. Like all other aspects of our new life, we must find ways to process, heal, and exist in our new bodies and minds. Often it comes down to choosing how we will approach Mother’s Day and what is best for us. It’s not a one size fits all. Some of us will find it is best to avoid certain places, while others are able to lean into celebrations of mothers in our lives. Some Cervivors will go about their day as any other day, while some will find healing in the shear acknowledgment that they are alive. Cervivors like Danielle will hold their children just a little closer that day, “I got my first all clear of stage 3b March 20th. I am a mother of 3, not only is this the most beautiful Spring I have ever seen, but the most precious Mother’s Day I will ever know.

Wherever you find yourself this Mother’s Day and however you are choosing to spend it, Cervivor wishes you a day of peace and joy! We are Cervivor.