Having a baby after a breast cancer diagnosis: Meghan’s story
In episode 5 of LBBC’s new Can and Did podcast, Meghan, an LBBC Young Advocate, shares her story about having a baby via a gestational carrier after an early-stage and then a stage IV breast cancer diagnosis.
A physical therapist and lacrosse coach living in the greater Philadelphia region, Meghan was on vacation in 2019 with her then-boyfriend, Ben, in Bethany Beach when he proposed. That evening, Meghan discovered a lump in her breast. She was 28 years old. When she was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer, with the support of her oncology team and the help of a grant, Ben and Meghan opted for fertility preservation. They successfully created eight embryos, and they were hopeful about getting married and starting a family after Meghan was finished with treatment.
Then, in May of 2020, Meghan was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Her oncologist told her that she wouldn’t live to see her wedding the following year. So, what did Meghan do?
One, she changed her oncologist.
Two, she and Ben married within a month. Their close family and friends attended a small gathering in their yard. (They renewed their vows on their original wedding date.)
Three, they started planning a family.
When a close family friend heard about their situation, she offered to carry their baby as a gestational surrogate.
We've been pretty open in terms of like the baby books that you write, and you write about, you know, the baby's story. We've been writing about how we made Ellie, but Carlene carried her for us because I couldn't.
Now Meghan wants to share her story because she wants you to know that you CAN find joy and perspective in life with metastatic breast cancer, because she DID. Learn about Meghan’s experiences as she narrates her story and then chats with Jean Sachs, LBBC’s CEO, in this episode.
Listen to Meghan's story below or read the transcript.
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This episode of Can and Did: Conversations with young women about breast cancer was supported by the Grant or Cooperative Agreement Number 1 NU58DP006672, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Department of Health and Human Services.
We've been pretty open in terms of like the baby books that you write, and you write about, you know, the baby's story. We've been writing about how we made Ellie, but Carlene carried her for us because I couldn't.
Welcome to Can and Did conversations: Candid conversations with young women diagnosed with breast cancer. I am Jean Sachs, the CEO of Living Beyond Breast Cancer. I want to thank you for listening to these authentic and inspirational stories. In this episode, Megan shares her story about having a baby via a surrogate after her diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. Afterwards, I'll take a few moments to chat with Megan about some of her experiences. Now let's listen to her story.
I am 31 and live in the greater Philadelphia area. I was initially diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, at age 27 or 28. And then later that in 2020, so May of 2020 was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. When I found the lump, we were on vacation and my now husband had popped the question earlier in the day in Bethany Beach, Delaware. My parents were there, and we went for a walk down the boardwalk and just kind of hung around at the beach. And when I got in the shower before our celebratory dinner, I found a lump in the shower.
So, I kind of left that alone and said, well you know, I have no family history or anything like that, so maybe it's just a cyst. So then, you know, maybe four or six weeks later I said, you know, this isn't really going away. And so, I went to my doctor and she said, you know, let's just get an ultrasound just in case. And so, I thought, you know, it was going to be an hour of time. I got to the doctor's office, and I want to say I had, you know, a nine o'clock appointment, and I got my ultrasound and then they said, okay, like we just want to see a couple of things so go ahead and have a seat. So I was waiting and waiting, waiting and then they said, we're going to do a mammogram, which I had never had before. And so then I was like a little nervous and they were like, oh, don't worry, you know, it'll be fine. We're just checking. And they had me wait after the mammogram, and then they had me go for the ultrasound again.
And that was when I was getting very upset. I had gone by myself because I assumed it would be fine, but we had had, you know, these engagement photos later that day. And so, I was all upset because I wanted to look nice for the engagement photos cause we'd never done anything like that. And I was all excited. And so, I was like, what is happening? And the whole second ultrasound, I just cried quietly because I was like, there's obviously not something right? This is now one, two o'clock in the afternoon. My appointment was at nine or 10. I've been here for hours. And so essentially after that, I'm sure the radiologist was not supposed to say this, she and two of the nurses pulled me into, you know, a room and said, 'We would be absolutely shocked if this wasn't cancerous.'
I was really upset obviously. And the first person I called my dad is incredibly level-headed, called my dad and I was crying and I said, they think it's cancerous. And he was like, well you know, they're just going to check it's, it'll be okay. But it turned out it wasn't okay. I had a biopsy about a week after that appointment and within 48 hours I had received the call that I had breast cancer and it was going to be either stage two or three. I just assumed it would be over in a year. I just, that's what I had to do. I'll do chemo, it'll probably be terrible, I'll go back to work, I'll have radiation and then it'll be over. And so I kind of told myself, this is what you have to do, and it's going to be terrible, but it will get better. And I, I did a lot of crying. I did a lot of crying. I did not do a lot of sleeping.
I was angry, and I think to some extent I still am. That ebbs and flows though the anger, I just finally felt like I had kind of had it together. I was in great physical shape. Like I felt good about, you know, the routine that I was in and good about all the things that Ben and I were doing. And so I was so angry about, as I'm sure a lot of people are, why would this happen to me? There's so much misinformation about breast cancer and how it is mostly genetic. Like that's always the first question. Everybody's always like, oh do you have the gene? And I'm like, no. Like most people don't. And so I think that's a huge misconception. I was really angry. The anger set in more after my double mastectomy because I had six weeks where I couldn't really move my arms very well. I couldn't really do anything but go to doctor's appointments and somebody had to drive me because I couldn't drive. And that was when it really set in. And then I was like, okay, like you know, I'm going to kick chemo's ass like it's going to be fine. And then I lost my hair and that was yet another punch to the gut.
My hairstylist at the time came to my house and buzzed my hair for me, and it was very emotional. I was by myself for the rest of the day, and I just kind of cried a little bit and Ben said, you know, let's go to the Sixers game. And I said Okay. And I had a hat on. And so, you go to the Sixers game and you have to take the hat off, which I had kind of forgotten at the time. And I was like in tears getting through the turns style because I was like, I totally forgot that I would have to take my hat off. And security guard kind of saw me like starting to cry and as soon as my beanie just even slightly came off and he saw what was happening, he like waved me through, and I was like, thank God.
It got better. There was a whole other wave of anger when I found out that it was stage four and that was weeks of anger about my doctor at the time my medical oncologist was pretty young, she was probably only a few years older than I was. I asked her, you know, this is March of 2020, so now we're like in the heat of this pandemic. My husband is sleeping in our basement because he works in healthcare, and we didn't know if he was going to bring home covid. So, my medical oncologist at the time, I said to her, am I going to make it for my wedding? Like my wedding is June of 21. And she told me no. And so, which is like obviously very wrong, I abruptly changed doctors. I said, this is obviously not the doctor for me.
And so that was our push. So we actually got married in our yard a month later because we said we wanted to be married, and if we didn't know if I was going to make it until the following year that we wanted to be married now. So we had like 20 to 25 of our closest family and friends. We got married in our backyard and then had like a vow renewal ceremony in our original, you know, wedding date, which was still beautiful and still fun. But there was a lot of anger about, you know, with that doctor because I mean she had never seen anybody my age with metastatic cancer. So why would you say something like that that's just totally inaccurate with absolutely no hope?
So, before all of this, when I was first diagnosed as stage three before chemo and my double mastectomy, I went through the fertility preservation process. Ben and I knew that we wanted to have children and my team helped facilitate that process. There were a lot of components to it. So, we went and saw the doctor. I had, you know, an initial exam and blood work done after that I got a grant for people who have cancer to get their meds because it's thousands of dollars’ worth of meds that you know, you have to take all of these hormones and things like that. And so, for like two, two and a half weeks I had to have shots on my stomach twice a day. I had blood work every other day because they're really trying to get, you know, the most accurate information about your hormone levels. The science of it is actually fascinating because like they're trying to recreate your menstrual cycle essentially. It was intense. They had a whole set of written directions of what medicines at what time needed to occur.
Ben and I had embryos created, it went really well. We have, well now we have seven embryos. Ellie was the eighth. And so a family friend heard about what was happening and about how we had planned to have children and now you know, it looks like I wasn't going to be able to carry, you know, a baby. And you know, we were pretty devastated about it. And my sister-in-law's best friend said, oh well I'll do it. I was like, well you shouldn't just say something like that unless you like really mean it because it's a really big deal. And she's like, no, like I, I would definitely do it. At the time she was a labor and delivery nurse and so she had had experience, you know, she knew some people who had been surrogates for other women and had seen women who were waiting for their baby to be born via surrogate. And so she said, oh sure. And so she and her husband and Ben and I had a whole conversation about it and there's so many legal pieces before you can even start to attempt to have you know the baby. And so I think we started those conversations in June and she did not have the embryo transfer until March.
It was very long. It was not a cheap process, and I felt good about it. Incredibly, actually, my cousin had also offered. And so you know we, when we went to the IVF doctor we said we have two incredible people who are willing to carry a baby for us. And we told them about different aspects of each of the women, my cousin and you know, my sister-in-law's best friend and the IVF doctor said I would go with the second one and not your cousin. And so we said, oh okay, because of Carlene had had two children before, my cousin had never had any children and there are pretty strict laws in some states about how you can't be a surrogate if you have not yet had your own children. And so we, we didn't want to get into that for my cousin's sake. And so it seemed like Carlene was the best option. So, all of our appointments, Carlene would FaceTime me in at the 20-week mark. We drove down to North Carolina, and I was there for the anatomy scan because we could only have one of us with Carlene because of Covid. And then when Ellie was born, we got the call that Carlene was being admitted and induced and we drove straight down to North Carolina. We both left work, got our bags, and immediately went down.
And so then as soon as she was born that she was our baby. So, then we had her! We still keep in touch with Carlene and her whole family because she has two younger kids. She had to kind of explain to them like it's not our baby, we're just helping the baby grow. Especially right when Ellie first came home, we would send a lot of texts and pictures and things like that. I would advise anybody who has to go through a surrogate or a gestational carrier because technically Carlene was a gestational carrier, not a surrogate a because Ellie was our embryo. But I would tell them that you have to have a lot of patience and that it takes significantly longer than you probably anticipate, but that it is a thousand percent worth it if you are carrying your own baby. You know exactly what you're eating. You know exactly what's going on with the baby throughout the day, but when the baby isn't with you all the time, you have to be patient and know that this person is doing this, and they are going to do the best they can for you. It requires a lot of trust.
We had always envisioned having two children and so we've kicked that around, not very seriously, but I honestly don't even know that we could have another child because I know what it was like having Carlene as a carrier. And so, if we had to have another carrier, Carlene wouldn't be able to do it. And I don't think that I could trust somebody else knowing how much trust I was giving to someone who was important family friend and who has a ton of knowledge about labors deliveries children. I mean she's a midwife now. She could have easily been a physician and so I can't even imagine somebody who is not her having another baby for us. So, patience and you have to trust the person and if you can't trust the person or if you feel like there isn't that trust there, then it's going to be a very arduous process.
If I'm doing something with Ellie or I'm doing something with Ben and you know in your head pops, well how long you know, am I going to be able to do this? Or you know, will this be the last whatever? And that's when I get kind of sad and angry.
Not to you know, be a Debbie downer because there's so many good moments too. And I'm really grateful for a lot of things that I don't necessarily think a lot of my peers even think twice about. I think I just have such a different perspective on like what's important. I love my profession, I love being a physical therapist, but before the cancer, like I was grinding, I was stressed all the time, I was constantly working, I was trying to do a million things at once and now I kind of look at it and I'm like, you know what is this really worth getting all that upset about in the grand scheme of things? And like the answer is almost always know.
I think that society on the whole is just like a huge rat race and there is not enough time for people to just decompress and be alone and quiet with their thoughts and to really do something that makes them joyful. And so coaching lacrosse brings me such joy. Exercising brings me joy. Reading or listening to a book brings me joy. And so, I've really tried to focus on doing those things and I think that that actually helps me be a better parent and a better wife. Like I think it helps me with my treatment and just like my general health. So, I sometimes I feel guilty because I'm like, oh I'm spending this, you know, half hour that I could be, you know, with Ellie or hanging out with Ben or hanging out with my friends. And then I'm like, well if you don't fill your own cup, how are you supposed to go about with an empty cup? Like you can't do that. You know, I'm really grateful to have the life and the lifestyle that I have given, you know, a metastatic diagnosis. So, I try to keep it all in perspective. Perspective is key. I feel like a lot of times you don't get perspective until you're older obviously. And now I think my perspective is probably closer to somebody who's, you know, 40, 50, 60 than somebody who's actually in their thirties.
It's such a fun dichotomy because I work with older people. Like I don't work with anybody in physical therapy who's less than 75 years old and it's awesome and I love it. And then, you know, I've recently started this assistant coaching position, so most of the girls that I'm working with are between, you know, 18 and 22. So I feel like I'm seeing like the two opposite ends, and it just cracks me up. Like I love it. I absolutely love it because I see all the perspective and like some of these older folks, they have no idea that I'm not, you know, a hundred percent healthy, but they assume I am. And I'm like, well, you know, I might have a little more perspective than you think.
Meghan, thank you so much for sharing your story.
Oh, of course. Anything to get the word out and hopefully help people feel a little less alone.
Well, your story is really powerful and also really, really challenging and really hard. I, I have to say, you're not the first young woman I have talked to who was diagnosed close to being engaged or about to get married. It is an incredibly hard situation. And then you certainly shared some difficult situations with your doctors where maybe things weren't said well, or you weren't always taken seriously. And then of course you were doing your treatment during the pandemic. So just wanted to say off the bat, you've been through a lot and I really appreciate that you were willing to just share all of that.
Oh, thank you.
And I really do understand your anger and it makes me angry too. I mean, I've been working in the breast cancer space for so long and the fact that still people don't understand that family history is really not a big part of what puts you at risk for breast cancer. And there's so many things that I want people to know beforehand and it just seems like for you, you were living your life and then all of a sudden everything changed.
How long had you been in treatment for metastatic breast cancer before you decided to start building your family?
My husband and I went through the fertility treatment process right when I was initially diagnosed with stage two. And we got the metastatic diagnosis in May of 2020. And it was almost immediate that we went through the first week or two of figuring out what the plan was going to be with my physicians and then we said, okay, what are we going to do? And we were so fortunate we had two people actually almost immediately offer to carry a baby for us.
How long were you actually in treatment for your metastatic disease before you reached out? Was that pretty immediate?
I was diagnosed with metastatic maybe halfway through May and we started the process with our carrier within the next month.
So that's really incredible. I just think it's unusual for the two of you to make that decision just for a lot of people. I know they're just reeling with the treatment and the diagnosis. But you were thinking forward from the beginning, right?
Yes, and we were lucky enough, my husband took quite a bit of time off right when I was re-staged and so he and I had a lot of time during the day to have those discussions. But yes, it felt like we had to make choices, and I think at that point I didn't feel in control of a whole lot, but I had control of what we were going to do about that. So between that and having people willing to carry for us, we said let's go ahead and do this.
That's an incredible gift. I loved hearing that story. I think you've sort of balanced your anger with your new perspective and just talk really honestly about how you are still so young and you're finding a new perspective and obviously raising a young child. So it's a lot.
It's a busy life, but I enjoy it. I always like being busy. I love some of what I'm able to learn from the cancer and try to take that into how we raise Ellie. So thank you. You know, for the opportunity to think about it and talk about it and share some of my perspective.
Well, it's very inspirational and I hope for all the people that listen who are in a similar situation learn from you that it is possible and it's something that you have to be really intentional about and very patient. You're clear about that, but that you can build a family after a serious health diagnosis.
Well, thank you so much, Meghan. We really appreciate you sharing your story and being part of Living Beyond Breast Cancer.
Thank you. I appreciate it.
Can and Did Conversations is a production of Living Beyond Breast Cancer. This episode was edited by Adriana Lecuona and produced by Jonathan Pfeffer. Listen to our other episodes on Apple Podcasts and Spotify or on our website LBBC.org. If you need support and want to talk, LBBC's Helpline Volunteers are ready to listen. Visit www.LBBC.org to get connected. Many thanks to our sponsor, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.