Fran, 38, was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2013. She and her husband Mark now have two girls, Evelyn (4) and Grace (2) who they had via an independent surrogate. Here Fran shares her journey to motherhood…
We were trying for a baby and I wasn’t getting pregnant. I was also bleeding during or after sex, which wasn’t really unusual for me so I hadn’t been too worried about it. But since we were trying I went to see the doctor. The GP seemed quite concerned, so they referred me to the hospital and a consultant took a look. Again he was concerned, although they keep assuring me it possibly was just a polyp. I had an operation quite quickly afterwards to remove it, and that’s when it turned out to be cancer.
That was horrendous, to go from trying for a baby to then, within weeks, finding out that we couldn’t have a baby and I had cancer.
It was a weird way to find out as well, because I found out before we really knew anything about it so we didn’t know how far along I was or anything. I think normally by the time you’d see a consultant you might actually know a little bit more detail, but I didn’t know anything and they just told me I had cancer.
I had some scans quite quickly afterwards, and was fortunately told that they could operate, and then I was basically given different options. One of them was a radical hysterectomy with removal of lymph nodes, and there was another option to do less surgery, which would have meant that I could still carry but the chances of reoccurrence were higher.
At that point I just thought, I’ve got to preserve my own life. Because what's the point in anything if I can't preserve my own life?
'For me, going through IVF was just part of the cancer treatment'
I never really thought, Oh, if I can't carry, that's going to mean that I'm not going to be a mum. There’s lots of different ways that people become mums these days. I can't carry but we'll find another way to have a child. And the most important thing is that if we do have a child that I'm there to raise it.
So it was quite a quick decision. I just said right, take it out. We also decided at the time to remove my ovaries, mainly I think, due to my anxieties of reoccurrence. So we did IVF and then I had a radical hysterectomy and I removal of my ovaries. That pushed my body into early menopause, and removed any chance of doing IVF again, so we basically had this one batch of embryos. For me, going through IVF was just part of the cancer treatment.
I think a lot of the IVF stories that you hear from people, they're really these huge life moments - people have often been working up to IVF for years and years and years and have been trying for a baby and have either not been able to get pregnant or have had pregnancies and miscarriages and there's been like, quite a big lead up to it. Whereas the IVF that I had was literally months after I found out about the cancer. So it was just part of that process, that we've had these nine embryos collected, put them in the freezer, and then just continued getting on with the treatment then get back on track with life.
When I started to look into surrogacy, there wasn't an awful lot of information out there. At the hospital my first consultant had been very much pro adoption and kept talking to me about how he’d treated cancer patients who’d gone on to successfully adopt, he didn't know anyone who’d used a surrogate. None of the nurses knew anyone who'd gone through surrogacy. So everyone was like, ‘Oh, it's possible’, but there wasn't a lot of information. All I really knew about surrogacy at that point had been through celebrities and on TV or in films. So it wasn't necessarily a really great reflection of how it actually works in real life or just, you know, for a regular person.
Finding the surrogacy community
My husband Mark and I didn’t have the ability to fly around the world, or we certainly wouldn't have been able to afford going down a route of surrogacy where we were having to pay large sums of compensation, like in somewhere like California. A lot of my family and friends therefore didn't really want us to build our hopes up too much about surrogacy. But we knew it was possible.
First of all, I remember looking at surrogacy agencies, but at the time they were all full and weren't taking any new members. You hear about the ratios of surrogates to intended parents (IPs) in terms of there's loads of IPs and not an awful lot of surrogates. I was going on forums where people were saying that they'd been in these agencies for years and still not had any success. So I just put it to the back of my mind and thought, you know what, I'm not ready for that anyway.
About six to eight months later, I was on Facebook randomly one night and thought, I'll just type into Facebook ‘surrogacy’ and see what comes up, just thinking, you know, there's groups for everything, maybe there's a group for surrogacy.
Then all these different groups for surrogacy came up! I remember spending hours going through them all, reading these stories and seeing so many photographs of people having their babies with surrogates, and everyone just seemed really happy, all of these people who’d been successful with surrogacy. For me that felt like discovering a whole new world that you had no idea even existed.
There were all these stories of people introducing themselves and explaining what happened. For the first time, it all felt like it might actually happen. I remember like Mark coming home and I couldn't shut up about all these stories. He was sort of like, you know, ‘calm down a little bit’, again, he didn't want us to get too excited. But I just remember thinking for the first time, this might actually happen and getting quite excited about that.
After that I checked the group every single day, like what was happening, any sort of updates and things. I chatted to a few ladies to try to work out what the etiquette was, which is a little bit like dating, you know – am I allowed to talk to more than one surrogate at the same time? When is it serious?
I talked to a few that didn't work out. Then I was in hospital for another surgery to remove a bit of ovary that had been left, and I had a text saying “Oh, hi, I'm Gina. I'm a surrogate, I've been passed your information”. And then from that we started chatting every day.
'It's a bit like dating'
It was really intense, a bit like dating when you first meet somebody, and you're trying to find out everything about each other. And you know, you tell them your life story and what's going on and you’re waiting for the text message on your phone. And then if they don't text back, it's like, oh, why are they not texting? It’s been like 10 minutes? Yeah, it just was really intense! But really nice too, having this potential match and this hope.
The first time we met in person we met at a group catch up arranged via the Facebook group, I was so nervous! We were just like giddy teenagers really, texting each other afterwards like ‘what did you think?’.
Then we decided to meet with the husbands as well, so we met up for lunch in a Toby Carvery. That was really great - Mark and Ian got on really well too in the end, we were like, right, are we ready to make this official and we decided then and there.
'Everyone was rooting for us'
I remember Ian turned to Mark and just went ‘we're gonna do this for you, mate. We're gonna do this.’ It just felt like such a team experience. Like everyone was rooting for us. And I was a bit blown away by the thought that this stranger, somebody that I didn’t even know literally a few months earlier is now willing to have a baby for us and put so much on the line.
So then we went through all of the process of the clinic, the counseling and everything that needs to be done. The first couple of times we tried, we weren't successful.
The third time we tried Gina got pregnant with Evelyn, who was our first daughter. And then she agreed to do a surrogate sibling journey as well with us. By this point we had one good quality embryo left and another that they basically said ‘we'll put in with it but on its own we weren't we wouldn't have bothered’.
I was quite nervous because it had taken three goes to get Evelyn and this was our last chance. Luckily this time it worked first time. However it was quite a difficult pregnancy for Gina. She already had three children of her own, so this was her fifth pregnancy and she was early 40s by this point. She had really bad sickness, breathing difficulties, and a hard labour too where she ended up having a C section. But for her it was also a really empowering experience.
Now we’ve got to two daughters. Gina's had both of them for us and we've continued to stay in touch, in fact Gina and Ian are going to be Evelyn's godparents.
When our children were born and placed in our arms, there wasn't any doubt in my mind that I was the mother, and it doesn't matter whether people have referred to us or not in that way. How they've come into the world, or whether they share your genetics or not, that's not what makes a mum. I think, for a lot of people it's about putting that story out there in a positive way.
'I wanted to hear about people who started off in the same place as me and were still able to become parents'
Especially when you undergo a cancer diagnosis that leaves you infertile, the best possible thing was hearing the positive stories. And that's all I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear about people who started off in the same place as me and were still able to become parents. Like I said, I still remember that night of suddenly coming across this community where there were so many people that were in the same position as us that had these happy endings. It made so much of a difference to me, so I felt like it was really important to get our story out there.
And so I started blogging about it, and started up the podcast with Kreena.
For anyone who’s thinking about going down the surrogacy route, or even wants to know a bit more about it, I’d advise you to listen to our podcast. I’d have loved for someone to have been able to tell me more about surrogacy when I was at the point of 'yes, 100%, I'm going to become a mum, if I live, I'm going to be a mum'. But how I was going to get there was still very much a grey area. And it would have been nice to have known then that surrogacy was definitely an option.
Friends Kreena and Fran host The Intended Parent Podcast sponsored by Macmillan Cancer Support. They share their surrogacy stories after both were left infertile when they were diagnosed with cancer.
Macmillan is doing whatever it takes to support people living with cancer during this difficult time. For more information and support call Macmillan on 0808 808 00 00 or go online at Macmillan.org.uk