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.

18.

18 years cancer free. I type those words and I feel so many emotions. I do not take lightly the magnitude of surviving 6,574 days beyond cancer.

Wow.

My eyes well with tears as I now say that aloud. I am grateful. I’m blessed. I’m lucky. I am honored. I am happy. I’m sad. Sad? I’m Angry. Angry? Yes, because there is a part of my heart that also aches for those that don’t get the opportunity to reach a milestone, such as this. It’s what’s commonly known as, “survivor guilt.” The guilt of “having made it.” But with cancer you’re always looking over your shoulder and are always just a cancer cell or more away from “what ifs.” I remember the enormous cloud of anxiety (and fear) that came with reaching one-year cancer free, and then five. Last year I had a scare. I didn’t know if I would still be cancer free for year number 18 but I am, and I am grateful. I’m also honored as I know that every single day, month and year matters. It’s an honor and a privilege to be 18 years cancer free.

I learned some time ago that I had to honor this time — not just this year, but every single day.  And I do that in various ways. First and foremost, I do that by the way that I live my life. I live my life as if tomorrow is not promised. I live my life by enjoying my imperfectly perfect life. I live my life by giving thanks for what I do have and try hard to not worry about what I do not. I wrote an entire book about it. If cancer taught me anything it is to be grateful for life and I seriously find joy in living my best life beyond cancer. Cancer does not hold me hostage anymore. 

I give back to the cancer community in many ways, but the biggest way is the nonprofit that I founded and lead, Cervivor. That work continues to inspire, empower and remind me that I am alive. It can be bittersweet, because while I honor this life beyond cancer, working in this space triggers past traumas of an emotionally and physically difficult time in my life. I’m also surrounded by women who are sick and who sometimes don’t survive this disease. That is probably the most painful part of this work. But, it has also become that catalyst of why I can’t abandon this work. Women still die of cervical cancer despite all the advancements that have been made. While we can prevent cancer in future generations we need more help for women who endure recurrent and metastatic cervical cancer today. I believe that we will make that happen. 

When I first became a patient advocate, I didn’t know that it would look like it currently does today. I didn’t set out to become a patient advocate. It was exactly the opposite. I wanted to forget cancer and pick up right where cancer had come in and halted my life. But the harder that I tried to do just that; the more difficult it was to bury it while trying to navigate my “new normal”. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reconcile how this thing had happened to me. How would I move forward with life. How do you live with the constant cloud of cancer hanging over you? I did decide to do something with “it” and “it” was to start sharing my story. I remember feeling that my story wasn’t as dire as some, and that compared to others it seemed that I had it “easier.” Why would anyone want to hear my story?  AND who would want to hear about cervical cancer and me talking about my “coochie” 🙂  But there was this feeling deep from within that I just had to do it. I had no idea what I was doing, but I learned just by doing something day by day and looking to others who could mentor me. Being a patient advocate isn’t a cookie cutter thing. There isn’t a one way fits all type of advocacy. Being a patient advocate is about being committed to a cause. It’s being vocal. My cause is to end cervical cancer. And with each year of survivorship that has become  even more personal than I could have ever imagined. I never thought that I would see myself here. But I am and I promise to make my survivorship count

My goal has always been to connect and mobilize as many cervical cancer patients and survivors; as possible. Over the last decade it has also been to get those women (and their networks) engaged in active advocacy. The past 18 years, I’ve met some incredibly dedicated women and more recently we’ve lost a few that not only hurts personally, but also comes at a great loss to the cervical cancer movement. 

That is what makes this cancerversary bittersweet. I want to yell from the rooftops that I AM 18 YEARS CANCER FREE (and I will), but I’m also sad to not be able to do the same with women like Jillian Scalfani, Lisa Moore, Brittaini Qadri, Lizzi Haas, Erica Frazier Stum and Laura Brennan. These losses hurt not only because of the loss of life, but because of the loss of champions for our cause. These women were giants. I miss them terribly. These women got it — in a big way. They were loud, vocal, passionate hadvocates. They understood the enormity of what we’re up against and the power of our collective voices to overcome it. I miss their willingness to be “all in.” I’ll continue to share their stories. Their voices will be heard.

This day will be about celebrating and a reminder that I am still here, but it is also a reminder at who is not. It’s bittersweet. But I’m focusing on the words of my friend, Dr. Sabrina Mikan, “Life is incredible! I appreciate each day I receive.” 

Amen.  

Tamika Felder is an 18-year cervical cancer survivor and award-winning women’s health advocate. She is the Chief Visionary at Cervivor – a nonprofit dedicated to cervical cancer advocacy and support. Named a “Cancer Rebel” by Newsweek in a 2017 cover story, Tamika is a highly sought-after speaker on cervical cancer advocacy, cancer prevention, HPV education, and living life with purpose after cancer. She is the author of “Seriously, What Are You Waiting For? 13 Actions To Ignite Your Life & Achieve The Ultimate Comeback.” Tamika currently serves on the steering committee of the National HPV Vaccination Roundtable. She’s also shared her story and experiences on Presidential Cancer Panels convened by the White House. An award-winning television producer, Tamika is currently filming a documentary about cervical cancer, the women living with it, and the vaccine to prevent it.  Her story of patient-to-advocate / survivor-to-Cervivor inspires and mentors not only patients and medical communities, but anyone who has struggled with obstacles in their life.