Life & Style | People

'My sister had my babies'

When Melissa Brown was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 26 she thought she’d never have a baby. She tells Jemimah Wright how her sister stepped in to help

  • By Jemimah Wright
  • Published: 13:28 December 18, 2012
  • Friday

  • Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Jessica with the twins Brendan and Gabriella, whom she delivered for her sister Melissa.
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Being a newly-wed should have been the happiest time of my life, but instead I was shattered when I learnt that I’d never be able to have children. I was devastated and tearfully wrote in my diary: “I cannot stop crying. I can’t help but feel the loss of children... I feel as though so many moments have been stolen from me.”

I was 26 at the time, and had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

My illness wasn’t the first time that cancer had touched my family. My mother, Gail, had first been diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 30. Her treatment had lasted three years, and she was given the all clear after a mastectomy. I was just three and my sister, Jessica, a year old, when Mum underwent the surgery so we don’t remember much about it.

Now I wanted them near me – Jessica, 28, was my best friend, we did everything together and Mum had already battled the disease three times. Her cancer had returned four months after I’d got engaged to Steve Mohler. It was the second time in two years it had returned, so she’d needed yet more chemotherapy. As we were all looking after Mum I discovered a lump, the size of a pea, in my left breast.

In terror, I rushed to the doctor. On January 16, 2008 – my 26th birthday – I had a biopsy done. Two days later, I was given the shocking results: I had breast cancer.

Family in turmoil

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Mum, 56, and I found we both had the same BRCA1 gene, which, thankfully, Jessica didn’t have. I needed chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. Before the first chemical dripped into my bloodstream, my oncologist – the same doctor who’d cared for my mother for more than 20 years – recommended a sort of insurance policy for the future. He said if I wanted children I’d need to have my eggs harvested as chemo cause infertility.

So, on Valentine’s Day 2008, two months after I detected the lump, I underwent surgery and began taking a drug to stimulate ovulation. I produced ten eggs, which were harvested, but only four fertilised. We froze the four embryos. I had some pain for a few days but I couldn’t tell if it was from the harvest or chemo that I’d also had that same day.

We never thought about cancelling the wedding. Steve was supportive when many others would have cracked or walked away. Maybe I should have panicked then but there was more terrible news to deal with. Mum wasn’t responding well to chemotherapy and her cancer had spread. We guessed she didn’t have long left with us so I advanced my wedding by three months so she could be there with us on our big day.

Meanwhile, Jessica had a bilateral mastectomy in 2008. The doctors had suggested she undergo that because of our family history of breast cancer.

It was a surreal time – my emotions were all over the place: I’d be worried and sobbing one moment, laughing the next... I was excited about the wedding, upset about Mum and apprehensive about my treatment.

Guessing my hair would probably fall out from the chemo, Jessica arranged for my long natural dark brown hair to be cut and made into a wig at New York-based Clary’s Wigs.

I was glad I did as I woke up a few days after my first chemo to find locks of my hair on my pillow, in my tea, in fact everywhere. By the third chemo session I was bald.

Mum had lost her hair too, so we both wore wigs to my wedding, in March 2008. We also had chemo side by side in the same hospital – the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia – and with the same doctor.

There were moments when I kept thinking, I wish I could see what Steve sees in me: I am bald; fall asleep while he is in the kitchen making meals or just getting me a drink, have veins that are blown out from IVs... Yet, every day he tells me how beautiful I am. He tells me how proud he is and how he is amazed by my strength. I don’t know how I got so lucky or what I did to deserve a man like him.

My joy turned to sorrow

After the chemo sessions, I did feel sick but I was responding well, and in June, after eight treatments, I was given the all clear. I was ecstatic. Now I could get on with my life!

But in July Mum went downhill rapidly and passed away. It was the hardest time of my life. I almost fell apart but my dad Michael, Jessica and Steve comforted me, and I tried to be strong for them. I decided to focus on something positive – having a family.

Steve and I wanted children but when we met my doctor in 2009 he said pregnancy could spark a recurrence in the cancer as oestrogen levels rise naturally during gestation. He said even though I was now in remission it would be too dangerous for me to have children. “I advise you to think about using a surrogate,” he said.

I rocked back, shocked. I’d assumed I’d done everything right. I’d had my eggs harvested, had undergone surgery and chemo. I was better now – I’d just assumed I’d be able to pick up where I left off. Now I was being told I’d never be able to have my own children naturally.

Jessica was with me at the meeting. “The most important thing is that you’re alive,” she said, squeezing my hand.

A few weeks later, Jessica joined Steve and me for dinner. In between bites of pasta, Jessica said she wanted to tell us something. “I’ve spent hours thinking about this. I want to be your surrogate,” she said.

I swallowed, stunned, then shook my head.

Jessica was 25, unmarried, with no children of her own. Her life was just beginning. Why would she get put it back on hold? I was so amazed by her offer, but I knew I couldn’t let her do it – it was too much.

“You are saying ‘no’ because you feel bad,” she said. “But what is nine months of my life when I could give you a lifetime of happiness?” she asked. I burst into tears, overwhelmed.

I realised that if I couldn’t carry our children, there was no one else that I’d rather have nurture our baby than Jessica, the person who’d always been there for me. “Yes,” I sobbed.

After doing some research we realised that being a surrogate is not easy. There are numerous bridges a potential carrier must cross, including Jessica persuading a battery of counsellors and physicians that she is capable of carrying another woman’s baby and then giving it up.

Our physician, Dr Clarisa Gracia, director of the fertility preservation programme at the University of Pennsylvania, usually requires surrogates to have completed their own childbearing before having someone else’s baby in case something goes wrong during surrogacy. “I just really wanted to do this for my sister,” Jessica told her. “It is a small price to pay for the happiness it will bring.”

Dr Gracia must have been impressed because she gave us the all clear. And in early 2010 we began working on the procedures to move forward. It cost around $30,000 (Dh110,202) for the harvesting, defrost, transfer, testing and medication. We paid it off in little bits over a long period of time.

Jessica had hormone treatment for three weeks where she was given progesterone injections. (Progesterone is a normal protocol in all gestational surrogacies. Doctors get the progesterone levels up to sustain a pregnancy since they are not being produced naturally as would happen if the pregnancy occurred naturally). It was painful, but she didn’t complain.

Two of the four embryos we had frozen in 2008 were defrosted and transferred into Jessica on August 17, 2010 during a simple procedure. Now we had to wait for two weeks to see if she was pregnant. I tried not to think about it, but it was impossible. Every day dragged. Then, finally, we had to go back for a pregnancy test – which was positive. We were ecstatic and hugged and kissed each other. In September we found out we were expecting twins! I’d never been more excited or more grateful. It felt like hope was coming back into the family.

Jessica started to show after 12 weeks. We live an hour and a half from each other so saw each other often. I work as a lawyer and Jessica works with our family jeweller’s.

Jessica was wonderful during the whole pregnancy, always saying, “They are not mine, they are my sister’s,” when people congratulated her; telling everyone she was just ‘the oven’. Dad was happy but worried about everyone’s health. He’d just lost his wife and dealt with one daughter’s bout with cancer. Jessica and I had had major surgeries. He was just very cautious and overly protective.

Jessica fortunately had no morning sickness or twinges. She’d let only me and Steve touch her growing belly. We shared everything together – all the emotions, the sadness of not having Mum there...

We found out the sexes of the babies in November 2010 and Steve and I chose names while Jessica and I shopped for kids’ stuff. Dad, Steve and I prepared the nurseries.

The big day arrived all too soon

Jessica had an uneventful pregnancy until 34 weeks when she developed pre-eclampsia – high blood pressure and protein in the urine. We had planned a scheduled C-section at 36 weeks, but because of this new development the doctors decided to do an emergency C-section on 15th, April, 2011.

I was scared for Jessica as well as my babies but the doctors assured me everything would be fine. However, because we were not expecting the babies to arrive two weeks early, we were not actually ready. In fact on the day of the C-section, Steve and I had rushed out after hospital visiting hours to buy bottles, swaddle blankets and diapers when suddenly my phone rang. It was Jessica. “Where are you?” she asked.

“We are getting the bottles and nappies – we’re coming – hold on!” I said.

We rushed back to the hospital. Dad too was there but he was not allowed in the operating room with us. So just Steve and I went in.

Jessica was not scared. She was simply excited to meet the babies. While Jessica appeared fine, I was however nervous all through the procedure.

Just before surgery began, she asked for Brendan to be born first, thinking that every little girl needs an older brother. And the doctors agreed: Brendan was born first. He weighed 2.6kg and was crying his little head off. He was followed a minute later by our daughter Gabriella, 2.4kg. Both were healthy and perfect so the doctors gave them the all clear while still in the operating room.

Steve and I cried tears of joy as we held our new babies. Proud father that he is, Steve later took the babies to show them to Dad.

Jessica got slightly nauseous after the babies were born and I stayed with her to comfort her. I was with her in post op until she was able to head to the nursery. Steve and I did all the feeds, the diaper changes... I stayed with Jessica in the hospital and the babies roomed with us.

Brendan looks like Steve while Gabriella looks like my mother. She has Mom’s skin, hair, eyes and smile. We decided to name Gabriella after my mother Gail. Mom did not particularly like the name Gail and always wished she had been named something prettier like Gabriella.

Jessica stayed with us for a month after she gave birth so we could help look after her.

Once we took the twins home, it got really busy. We had many visitors and the house was full of people. But we quickly settled into a three-hour schedule. We would change them, feed them, play/interact and let them sleep every three hours around the clock for the first couple of weeks.

The twins are now 20 months old and we take them to see Aunt Jessica every week. We phone her every day.

Brendan loves to cuddle and give hugs and kisses to us and to Gabriella. He is so talkative. He laughs at himself and is always doing silly things like walking on his toes and peeking around corners.

Gabriella runs my home. She directs Steve, Brendan and I with her fingers and we know exactly what she wants. She is so logical and likes for her sippy cups to be facing the same direction and her toys to be where they belong. She loves her babydoll, Sophie.

I don’t know when or how we will tell them how they were born, but we will let them know that the whole family wanted them so much that we were all part of the process. We still have two embryos frozen and have not decided whether we will have more children or not.

I have the most incredible sister who has given me the gift of my children. I can never repay her for this gift.

Jessica says, “I love the twins – and will always have a special bond with them. To keep from getting overly attached to the babies growing inside me, I would silently repeat my mantra: ‘I’m just the oven.’

“I will always have a different bond than just a random aunt or uncle, but from day one, I always said in my head ‘I am just a little oven’.”

* Melissa Brown, 30, lives in New Jersey, US

Comments (2)

Share your views
  1. Added 18:47 December 22, 2012

    I read your article from beginning to end many times. Each time i read i feel respect for every individual of it. Much More Congratulations to Melissa Brown, Steve Mohler, Jessica, (her) Dad, Brendan and Gabriella for their love, care and feelings for each other. Salute to Jessica for her care/love for her sister. Melissa you are really lucky for having caring husband Mr. Steve and a great sister because now a days the gift/love they gave is very very rare to find.

    Iqbal, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  2. Added 10:03 December 21, 2012

    Jessica is the luckiest sister in the world. She has got a very loving sister!!!!

    Nancy, Ajman, United Arab Emirates

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