Becoming a Mother After Surviving Breast Cancer | Erin's Story
October 7th, 2022 | 9 min. read
When a hopeful parent is told they may never be able to have children, what comes next? One couple opens up about their journey through a sudden cancer diagnosis, fertility preservation, surrogacy and everything else they went through to bring their baby girl into the world.
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Meet Erin & Matt
Their story began in 2011, when Erin and Matt met for the first time in Long Beach, NY. Matt had just moved there from Toronto and Erin had just moved there from New York City. One night, when he was at a surfers' association event and Erin was out with a friend, Matt introduced himself and they found they had an instant connection. "We started dating shortly after meeting and have been inseparable ever since," Erin says.
They always knew they wanted to be parents. Soon after they met, Erin and Matt agreed that they would love to have a family together. After dating for a few years, they said "I do!" and tied the knot in 2016.
After their wedding, the happy couple set off on a globetrotting honeymoon with big dreams for the future.
"Matt and I were on our honeymoon in Thailand when I felt a lump in my breast," recalls Erin. "I didn't think much of it because I was only 31, but I made an appointment with my doctor when we got home."
What happened next shocked them both.
A Shocking Diagnosis: Stage 2 Breast Cancer
Upon returning home, Erin saw her doctor, who scheduled an ultrasound. The ultrasound led to a biopsy, which confirmed that the lump she had found was actually Stage 2 breast cancer.
"My cancer diagnosis was a major shock and completely turned our world and plans upside down," Erin says. "Breast cancer doesn't even run in my family." The couple did their best to process the devastating news and create a plan for both Erin's cancer treatment and find a way to preserve her current fertility so they could hopefully attempt pregnancy in the future.
"Thankfully, we found out we'd have a few weeks between my diagnosis and starting chemotherapy to go through fertility treatment and preserve embryos," Erin says. But with emotions swirling and such a limited timeline, it wasn't easy. They forged ahead, consulting with doctors and making plans as they navigated the path ahead.
Are you facing cancer? Reach out to speak with one of our fertility experts today, who can help fast-track your care to ensure you have the best chance at preserving your fertility before cancer treatment.
Weighing Their Options for Family Building
At a consultation at Weill Cornell Medicine, Erin and Matt discussed their options with their team. They decided to try to cryopreserve embryos prior to Erin starting cancer treatment, and she was started on IVF "stim" shots that very same day. It was a two-week process that ended in an egg retrieval and fertilization of the eggs.
They were able to cryopreserve 14 (Day 1) embryos before she began chemotherapy the following week. Under normal circumstances, embryos are typically allowed to mature to Day 5 before being frozen, though it's rare for all fertilized eggs to become healthy embryos.
Thankfully, Erin's treatment was successful! She completed active cancer treatment in October 2016, and has been cancer free ever since.
However, as part of Erin's treatment plan for early stage breast cancer that was fed by estrogen, she has to remain on medication that suppresses estrogen production in her body for five years. As a result, Erin wouldn't be able to attempt pregnancy until that treatment was completed.
A fertility doctor explains all the options:
Finding a New Path to Parenthood
Still wanting to fulfill their dream of having children, Matt and Erin started looking into surrogacy in early 2018.
They began working with Golden Surrogacy, who then recommended Illume Fertility, and specifically, Dr. Mark Leondires. "The minute we met Dr. L we knew we were in the right place," says Erin. "He was extremely knowledgeable, welcoming, and understanding and we felt completely comfortable working with him."
This kicked off their nearly two-year journey with Dr. Mark Leondires and his team.
"Dr. Leondires was simply the best every step of the way and we couldn't have imagined a better doctor and team to help us in this enormous endeavor," says Erin. "Dr. L. was encouraging, yet honest, personable, knowledgeable, and understanding, and devoted as much time as needed to make sure we felt comfortable with the process."
Navigating Loss & Uncertainty
Erin and Matt say they really didn't know anything about the surrogacy process prior to starting, but learned a lot along the way. "If anything," says Erin, "I wish we had known what the ultimate outcome of the process would have been (Olivia!) because the roadblocks and heartbreaks along the way would have been a bit easier to handle."
As with most fertility journeys, the hardest parts of the process were things not working out as planned, Erin recalls. "While we had a successful journey which ended with the most beautiful baby girl, there were definitely low points along the way," she says. "We started with 14 Day 1 embryos and only two of them ended up making it to Day 5."
One of those two embryos ended in a miscarriage and the very last embryo was Olivia - so the stakes were high. "The low points were very hard but worth it all to have our little miracle here with us today," Erin says.
A Match Made in Heaven
Thanks to the help of Golden Surrogacy and Illume Fertility, they matched with a gestational carrier, Ashley, who Erin says is the best surrogate on the planet.
"Ashley and her family are angels on earth and we are forever grateful that we found them," she says. "Trusting someone to carry our baby was no small endeavor, but somehow it worked out perfectly in every way."
Note: A gestational carrier is the person who helps to grow a pregnancy and deliver the baby, but is not biologically connected to your child. While the gestational carrier is not related to the child, many surrogates maintain a beautiful, close relationship with their intended parents during pregnancy.
While they never expected to need the help of a surrogate, they now look back on their surrogacy journey as one of the most incredible experiences of their lives.
In November 2019, Dr. L transferred one of the couples' embryos into the uterus of their amazing surrogate Ashley. "On July 15, 2020, we welcomed the most amazing, beautiful little girl into the world, Olivia Jane Anthony," says Erin. "Olivia is the best thing that has ever happened to us and we credit Illume's expertise, patience, confidence, advice and utmost care to the reason we have her here today."
Erin and Matt feel grateful to have found such a dedicated team to help them realize their dream of becoming parents. "Illume is an amazing place and we are so glad that we decided to embark on this journey with them by our side - we have no words to describe the feelings we have for the miracle that they made happen, and we’re forever indebted to them," says Erin. "We would recommend Dr. L and his team to anyone, and our little angel Olivia is proof that everything we went through to get her here was absolutely worth it!"
Learn more about oncofertility preservation:
What They Learned on Their Journey
“Before we started our journey, we didn’t know anything about IVF, oncofertility preservation, surrogacy, or all of the amazing, incredibly intelligent and caring people who work so hard every day to help families like ours," says Erin. While they wish they'd never had to learn about all of these topics, they're grateful for the outcome.
When it came to their personal relationship, "Matt and I spent a lot of time talking things through when things got tough and promising each other that no matter what happened, we would make the best of it and live the best possible lives ever," Erin says. Finding ways to stay connected to your partner when things are difficult can be challenging, and finding ways to refocus on what matters is so important.
"We traveled a lot to experience the world and all it had to offer and tried to keep as busy as possible. We also committed to never giving up on having a family - so if one route didn't work out, we would adjust our plans and continue moving forward with something else."
Their dedication to communication and supporting each other helped them get through the hardest parts of their journey and maintain perspective.
Remember: You don't have to go it alone! Our Integrated Fertility & Wellness program offers holistic support to help. Explore our acupuncture, counseling (including for couples), nutrition, support groups and more.
Knowing what they know now, Erin says her advice to others facing a difficult or uncertain family-building journey would be that even though it won't be easy, you should go for it 100% and not look back. "Your path to having a family may not be the path that you envisioned, but it will be your path and you should be proud of it," she says.
Where are they now?
These days, Erin and Matt are thoroughly enjoying life with their daughter (now a toddler) and feeling optimistic about the future. "We absolutely love being Olivia's parents and would love to add to our family," Erin says.
"We're looking into the various options we have to grow our family and give Olivia a little sibling, but in the meantime, we're soaking up every minute we have with our little toddler and really enjoying every stage."
Our heartfelt thanks to Erin and Matt for sharing their story with us in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month!
Sierra Dehmler is Illume Fertility’s Content Marketing Manager - and also a fertility patient herself. Combining empathy gained on her personal journey with her professional experience in marketing and content creation, she aims to empower and support other fertility patients by demystifying the fertility treatment process.