Surrogacy & Survivorship: It Takes a Village

Kelly’s personal journey as a survivor, Livestrong Leader, and brand-new mom.

Throughout my life, I have always been a planner. I knew I wanted to attend college, get married, and have a family. Once I met my now-husband, Matt, that plan started lining up perfectly. We got married in 2011, I had a job I absolutely loved, and I was in graduate school pursuing my master’s degree. Nowhere in my plan did I account for the events of July 2012. When I was just 24 years old, I felt a lump in my right breast. Sure, it was nerve-wracking at first, but I had been told so many times that I was “too young” for it to be anything serious. It was probably fibroids or a benign tumor. Well, it turns out that I wasn’t too young, and it was stage-2 breast cancer.

On July 27th, 2012, my whole world turned upside down. I had to face my mortality in a way I never expected. I sought out care at a local cancer center and a second opinion at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. We ultimately decided to go with MSKCC because of their expertise with young cancer patients and I am so glad I did. My oncologist and breast surgeon immediately went through a proposed treatment plan that included surgery and chemotherapy. While I knew that chemotherapy would be tough, I had to face the challenge that my plans for building a family with my college sweetheart would be greatly impacted. I feel so blessed that my oncologist made fertility preservation part of the treatment plan. Not only did we discuss it, but the team at MSKCC set up a meeting with a nurse whose sole job was to help patients like me understand cancer’s impact on my fertility and make a plan. I know now that these conversations don’t always happen for many patients who find themselves navigating this path alone.

Once we had a plan, we connected with a local fertility clinic and Livestrong’s fertility program who donated the medication I would need to freeze my eggs.

Preserving my fertility was a “backup plan” as my oncologist framed it. Ideally, I would be able to try for children after 5 years on Tamoxifen, a hormonal therapy that would hopefully decrease my chances of the cancer returning. 5 years? No problem, I can do that. I would be 29 and still young enough to have children and live out the life I had imagined. So, I took on treatment and did whatever I was asked to make sure that I increased my chances of kicking cancer out of the door for good.

It was hard waiting those 5 years. I often complained to my oncologist, who I adore, and begged her to consider letting me take a break from the Tamoxifen to try for a baby. In her words, “You want to know that you always did everything you could to prevent a recurrence”. She was right. Just shy of my 5 years on the medication brought a whole new challenge. Since I had breast reconstruction with an implant, I had to have an MRI every 3 years to ensure there were no leaks. In 2016, I went to my appointment and that night I received several calls from my plastic surgeon urging me to call her back. It turns out that the MRI caught something on the edge of the image. I needed to go see my breast surgeon and get it checked out. I love my breast surgeon and trust him with my life so when I saw his face after the physical exam, I knew that the cancer was back. I was booked for a series of tests including a biopsy and PET scan. Our worst fears were confirmed on November 6, 2016. I had a breast cancer recurrence in my lymph nodes in my armpit. What a gut punch. I will never forget that feeling. How in the world was this happening again? I thought I did everything that I was supposed to. I delayed my life plans to kick cancer’s butt and here it was again. We were devastated. My treatment plan this time around was more intense: surgery to remove all of my lymph nodes just a few days after that fateful MRI, more chemotherapy and radiation. It was looking like freezing my eggs was no longer the backup plan but THE plan.

The same month I was diagnosed for the second time, Matt and I visited my sister. She is 7 years older than me, but she has been my partner-in-crime for my entire life. She is my best friend, confidant, and adventure partner. She is selfless in so many ways and someone I have always looked up to. Having just had her son the previous June, she knew how important motherhood was to me. Without hesitation, she sat down with Matt and me and offered to carry our baby. We all knew that it was a tough conversation to have, but the truth was I didn’t know if carrying my own child would ever be safe for me. My cancer is estrogen and progesterone positive meaning it thrives off of my own hormones. I would also have to be on an aromatase inhibitor and a Lupron injection for at least 5 to 10 years. That treatment combination essentially put me into a chemical menopause. This would leave me in my mid to late thirties by the time I could try and who knows what the chemotherapy would do to my remaining eggs. Surrogacy was now our best option for becoming parents. I had mixed feelings when this became more of a reality. I had wanted to be a mom my entire life and associated being a mom with all of the things that pregnancy would bring. I would miss all of that. I wouldn’t get to feel those first kicks, have a cute belly, or even get to announce to my husband or family that I was pregnant. Those things seem trivial now, but they were so important to me. It took me a long time to come to terms with that sense of loss.

We met with our reproductive endocrinologist in September of 2017. I had just turned 30 and it couldn’t have been a better gift than to start planning the surrogacy process. After meeting with our doctor, it was clear that my sister would be a good candidate under one condition: she should be finished growing her own family first. We knew that Kristin and her husband, Jeff, wanted one more child so we told them that we would wait as long as they needed to make that happen. Our niece, Grace, was born in July 2018, and what a beautiful blessing she has been.

We hit the ground running 7 months later in February 2019. We met with our fertility team, lawyers, psychologists, and so many more people I can’t even begin to keep track of. We were so excited and looking back now, we were also very naïve. We thought to ourselves, “Wow, 9 months from the embryo transfer, we will have a baby.” How very wrong we were. I knew nothing about IVF and surrogacy prior to this journey. I wish someone had told us that this was a marathon and not a sprint. We were ready for the first embryo transfer in May 2019 and those who have gone through IVF, know about the dreaded two-week wait. This is where you need to wait and see if the embryo implants and there is a positive pregnancy test. It is as awful as it sounds. It consumes all of your thoughts and for the first transfer, those thoughts were hopeful and full of planning. I was constantly daydreaming about what the nursery might look like, what names we might use, and all of that fun stuff that aspiring parents think about. We got the incredible news that there was a positive pregnancy test after that wait, and I never felt more excited in my life. That excitement quickly turned to heartbreak when we found out my sister had a chemical pregnancy or early miscarriage. “This happens” is the answer we were given when we wanted to know what went wrong. I didn’t know that would happen. I thought this would be a straightforward process and my baby would be here 9 months after that embryo transfer. This was a turning point for Matt and me. We needed to be guarded with our emotions and be ready for all possible outcomes. My sister continually reminded us to have faith. Even though we knew that nothing could have prepared us for the way the second embryo transfer turned out.

The second embryo transfer was set for August 2019. We were thrilled when we found out that Kristin had a positive pregnancy test. Our nurse encouraged us to be cautious because the HCG (pregnancy hormone) levels were not increasing properly. We prayed for a miracle and thought our prayers were answered when we made it to 6 weeks. We were even able to share the news with my parents. It felt so normal being able to surprise them. We were scheduled for a scan where we could see the heartbeat. We went to that scan and just like my breast surgeon, I could read the doctor’s face. It wasn’t good. The baby’s heart rate was very low, and it was unlikely that the baby would develop normally. We were heartbroken but praying that our baby would be in the small percentage that would make it. Right around my birthday, we found out that the baby had died. I don’t think I have ever felt a sense of darkness come over my life quite the way it did during our surrogacy journey. I had trouble sleeping, I was constantly searching on the internet, and I had trouble focusing on everyday tasks. I couldn’t believe that this was happening. I thought that I had moved past the most difficult part of my life when I finished my active treatment for breast cancer for the second time. While some may disagree, I found the IVF process to be the most challenging time of my life. When I had cancer, I felt I could do all that I could to ensure the best outcome. I completed my treatments, exercised, stayed mentally strong and leaned on my family. IVF was destroying me and weighing so heavily on my husband and sister. I had no control over anything. Even the doctors couldn’t pinpoint what went wrong with the cycles, making the process extra frustrating. No matter what we did, sometimes things were not going to work out. That was a hard pill to swallow.

We had to take a lot of time off between the second transfer and trying again. My sister had to have surgery and take time to recover. In January 2020, we had a third embryo transfer on my sister’s birthday. That had to be good luck, right? Wrong. That embryo transfer failed, and we were back to feeling like this may never happen. We were quickly running out of opportunities, and we might not ever have a biological child. I had dreamed of what our baby would look like since I met Matt in 2006 and the thought of never meeting one of our children was too much to bear. We set up a meeting with our doctor to discuss a plan for going forward and what changes we might need to make. We have truly been so lucky to meet such wonderful doctors because this doctor was willing to do whatever it took to get us our baby. Usually, if you have 3 failed transfers with a surrogate, they recommend a new surrogate. Knowing it was my sister and she was in peak physical condition, he decided to suggest a different plan. “Do you think your sister would be willing to change her diet?” I knew that my sister would climb Mt. Everest for us if she had to, so the answer was yes. From that day forward, Kristin was on a gluten- and dairy-free diet. Talk about love in action. There is nothing that she wouldn’t do for us.

March 2020 obviously brought the world to a screeching halt with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. This pushed back any plans for another embryo transfer until it was safe. We finally felt ready in the summer of 2020, and we scheduled our embryo transfer for August. It was almost 1 year to the day from the second embryo transfer that ended so painfully. The pregnancy test came back positive, and the HCG levels were perfect. This was it. It had to be after all the heartache. Early in September, we were scheduled to have an ultrasound and my sister called me the night before in a panic. She was bleeding heavily. I collapsed to the floor and cried. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The drive down the following morning felt like a funeral. We had been here before and were sure that it was over. My husband stayed strong for us both, but I know he felt the same. We went into the room, and because of the pandemic, we had Matt on FaceTime. Kristin explained the bleeding and the doctor wanted to take a look. I could see the computer screen, but Kristin couldn’t. As soon as the image popped up, I saw the most incredible sight of my life. A fluttering heartbeat! Our little one was bouncing around and growing strong. Tears of joy spilled down our faces and the funeral we thought we were having turned into a party. My dad had taken a ride down with my sister so she wouldn’t be alone while her husband worked. We celebrated with coffee (decaf for Kristin of course) and donuts in the parking lot.

My birthday looked very different in 2020. We were discharged from the fertility clinic and what a present that was. We were on our way to becoming parents. The process began to feel more normal as we started seeing Kristin’s OB/GYN. Our baby, or our little girl as we now knew, was growing rapidly and the dream started feeling like it was really going to come true. While it was sad sometimes to not experience the pregnancy directly, my sister made us part of every moment. We celebrated the first kicks, listened to the heartbeat, took pregnancy announcement pictures and she even played clips of us reading and singing to the baby every night.

It wasn’t “normal,” but my life has been anything but normal anyway. It is our story and I love every second of it because it brought us our daughter.

On April 22, 2021, we went to the hospital for the scheduled C-section. We were finally going to meet our miracle baby. Ironically, Kristin’s water broke while we were waiting to go into the operating room, so this baby was coming that day whether we scheduled it or not. She really wanted to be an Earth Day baby, I guess. I accompanied Kristin in the delivery and Matt had to wait in the hallway because of hospital regulations.

Hannah Kristin Della Rosa arrived at 12:08 pm on 4/22/21.

We chose her name because Hannah is the patron saint of infertility in the bible, and Hannah was blessed by God with a child even after being deemed infertile. Of course, her middle name honors her aunt who delivered her safely into our arms. As soon as our sweet girl was born, the doctor dropped the curtain covering Kristin and my life changed forever. She made me a mom. Sure, I didn’t carry her, feel her kick, or breastfeed her, but I am her mom, and I am so proud that we never gave up. We prayed for her for so long and she was worth every bit of the wait.

We couldn’t have done it without the support and guidance of our families, doctors, friends, and the Livestrong fertility program that jump-started the process.

As Hannah grows up, I want her to know how wanted and loved she was long before she even arrived. I want her to know that her Aunt Kristin gave us the most wonderful gift and that sometimes, families are built in different ways. That is what is so beautiful about our story. The journey may not be what we envisioned 10 years ago, but Hannah is here. The best views come after the hardest climbs.

-Kelly Della Rosa

Cancer Survivor, Livestrong Leader, Hannah’s Mom

Surrogacy & Survivorship: It Takes a Village was originally published in Livestrong Voices on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.