How Cancer Led to a Pregnancy

< * < * <  by the surrogate gal  > * > * >

It’s impossible not to talk about my decision to be my sister’s surrogate without bringing up the “C” word. It’s that nasty, ruthless, 6-letter word that caused everything else to transpire.

The evening before I found out about my sister’s cancer, I had been absorbed by a book—Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon by Andrea Di Robilant. A good part of it was about Lucia and her sister, and how the two were devoted to one another. Having lived in the tumultuous time of Napolean and usually in separate countries, the mode and timeliness of their communications were restricted by how swiftly the messengers could deliver their posts. Often they’d be near desperation waiting for the next letter. They were close. They reminded me of my sister and me, living on opposite coasts. I recall thinking just before I turned out the light that night how incredibly lucky I was to have Heidi in my life. I resolved to call her the next day to tell her so. But she got to me first.

I was driving on the freeway when Heidi gave me the news by phone. Cervical Cancer. Discovered through a routine pap smear. There’s this kind of panic mode you get in when you hear terrible news about someone you love and you don’t yet have all the information. You start hitting them with a barrage of questions. What kind of cancer? How did they find it? Are they sure? Have you scheduled a second opinion? What’s next? How long does that take? What happens next? When will you know what all this means?

Next came, the most harrowing series of questions for my parents, both long-time veterans of the cancer world. “What is happening?” “What’s the prognosis with a cancer like this?” “What do you know that you’re not telling her?” My dad is a retired oncologist while my mom is an oncology nurse who treats cancer patients and administers chemo. They had no answers. It was a watch and wait situation. What a fucked up coincidence to have their daughter diagnosed with the disease.

I can’t really recall what happened next. Much of the year and a half that followed was a blur of following Heidi’s ordeal from afar—the seemingly hundreds of doctor’s visits at Memorial Sloan Kettering; starting the CaringBridge site as a way for friends and relatives to keep tabs on her; stumbling upon another cancer in Heidi’s thyroid (just by chance and completely unrelated to the first cancer); the discovery of a more aggressive, often fatal cancer within the biopsy of her cervical cancer; a second opinion of the biopsy from a doc in Florida; multiple treatment plans discussed, dismissed and debated by her oncologist and finally, by the cancer board; and then my visit.

My trip to NYC in the fall of 2008 coincided with a doctor’s visit to her oncologist on the cancer board’s ruling. As we rode the 4 train to the office, her boyfriend Jeremy was busy conferring with Heidi and madly scribbling notes on what they wanted to ask him. I remember being taken aback by how invested he was, emotionally, in her. I adored him instantly. At this point, Heidi had not yet started her chemotherapy. What was in question was whether she could keep her uterus. An hour later, we were sitting in Dr. A’s office. The decision was not good. The board favored a hysterectomy. She was only 29 years old.

You could tell Dr. A did not agree with the board. It seemed painful for him to dole out the news. Heidi seemed in shock. Jeremy seemed angry; he threw a million questions at Dr. A as to why this had to be. It didn’t matter, though, the decision was made.

Returning from NYC to the Bay Area, I kept thinking about that decision. At this point, there was still so much ahead for Heidi—more chemo, radiation, surgeries, and ultimately, waiting to hear the final verdict on whether any of this worked and she was cured. But first, because of the severity of her disease and the board’s verdict, she had to harvest some eggs—and fast—before the hysterectomy.

I started getting phone calls from Heides about the harvesting procedure, how she’d found an outstanding doctor, Dr. N, at NYU, and how she was walking around NYC, rubbing her bloated belly—from all the hormone drugs—knowing that any one of the eggs that was forming inside her could be her future child. It was heartbreaking, though. Heartbreaking to think she might not make it through this, and that even if she did, she’d never, ever be pregnant. And who knows how, when, if she could ever find a willing surrogate if she did survive?

I decided I would do it. I’d be her surrogate. It was an easy decision, really. People don’t realize that. She’s my sister. I love her. It seemed like a simple, obvious choice to me. What’s a pregnancy when you’re battling cancer?

A week or so before I told her, Heides called to tell me that of the eggs she was harvesting, a batch of them would be fertilized by Jeremy, the human fertilizing machine. They weren’t even engaged yet. But I knew. I actually knew years before just by the way she talked about him, about the way he treated her. My mom, on the other hand, an eternal pessimist, kept saying through the cancer treatments, “I just hope Jeremy sticks with her.” “Mom!,” I said. “They’re freezing fertilized eggs! I don’t think he’s going anywhere.”

And he didn’t. Today, Heidi has completed more than a year and a half of clear scans (at 5 years, they consider her “cured”), and just married Jeremy in May. And as for me? I’m pregnant!

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