MARGARET CIEPRISZ, 38, was newly wed when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Before surgery, she had healthy eggs removed, and now has a daughter who was carried to term by her sister.
I had been having some minor stomach discomfort. I thought it was just stress—I was in that pre-wedding stage. A routine physical revealed that my ovaries were somewhat enlarged, but after the doctor took my medical history, he said not to worry about it. Every month or so afterward, I went for a sonogram.
I got married in June 2001 and moved from Washington, D.C., to New York, and by the end of the summer, the radiologist said, “You know, it’s not shrinking. I think it’s time you had them looked at.” The surgeon who was going to perform the laparoscopy thought that he was treating a routine case of ovarian cysts. When I woke up after the procedure, the doctor said that what they found was not the routine case of ovarian cysts that they thought they were looking at. I might have to lose not just my ovaries but my uterus as well. That’s when it started to dawn on me: Not only did I have cancer, but I might not be able to have children.
At that point, they knew it was stage 3 cancer; I was definitely going to lose my ovaries. Further tests were needed to see whether they’d be able to save my uterus. If there was any chance to be able to have a child that was biologically mine, it would involve delaying my surgery. The doctor explained that I would have to take fertility drugs to increase production of my eggs and ultimately get IVF—if I still had a uterus. When my sister Ann heard the doctor say that, she immediately said, “I’m not using my uterus; you can use it if you need to.” My heart swelled, because to have this little hope—from what everybody started telling me, the success rate with frozen embryos was pretty low, like 30 percent—made everything ahead of me more bearable. Then my sister asked what my chances of survival were, and we were told that the number was pretty low: 20 percent—plus the fertility drugs might increase the chances that cancer would spread. A part of me felt selfish because of the added risk and the fact there are so many children who need to be adopted, but I also thought, Why can’t I have this hope? I just wanted to try it and didn’t think it was too much to ask to go ahead with it.
All the surgeries were going to happen at the same time. My ovaries had to be removed, and my eggs were in there, so they had to coordinate it so my eggs would ripen. And there was no room for error. I couldn’t wait another month for another batch of eggs. The endocrinologist created the embryos with my eggs and my husband Kenny’s sperm and froze them, and the gynecological oncologist removed my ovaries and uterus, so everything was done.
The chemo was pretty nasty, but it was successful. About a year after, my oncologist pushed me to start thinking about if I wanted to try for a child. I was a little hesitant, because how can you bring a child into the world when you don’t know if you are going to be there? But despite all my concerns about little cancer cells lurking, I felt good. I thought I beat the odds. Kenny agreed, reasoning that anything could happen to either of us at any time, so why wait?
Bringing it up with my sister was like asking somebody for a date. I was tongue-tied and nervous and scared. I thought maybe a year and a half ago she’d been caught up in the emotion when she had just immediately volunteered to be a surrogate. But she said, “Yes, of course. I said yes a year and a half ago and I’ve thought about it a long time now and I know what’s involved and I want to do it.”
After having to go through all sorts of injections and blood tests like the ones I had when they harvested my eggs, she came up from D.C. to have three of the embryos implanted. Ten days later, I was in court for something and I got a happy voice mail from my sister. I almost burst into tears, but I couldn’t because the defendant kept coming in and out of the courtroom, and I couldn’t have him see me that way.
Initially, when Natalie was born, Ann didn’t feel a connection, but by the time she went home from the hospital after the C-section, she felt that she had this strong bond. I stayed with Ann in D.C. for ten days, and it was a very difficult parting for both of us. She carried this baby for nine months, and there I was, taking this baby away from her. It’s still hard for Ann because sometimes she feels like this child is going to grow up and not know her—but it is turning out differently. Just this past weekend, Ann was here, and we were in the car going out to Long Island for my other sister’s birthday. While we were waiting for Kenny outside Starbucks, Natalie went to put her head on her aunt’s shoulder and said, “Ann, you’re my best friend.” I don’t know how we’re going to eventually tell her that Ann is also her birth mother, but so far, things have turned out beautifully. I have this baby, and she has a wonderful aunt.
I was going to take a six-month maternity leave, but now, three years later, I’m still a full-time mom. I didn’t know how much joy I’d get from her. I don’t regret that I had to go through anything to get her. But with the cancer diagnosis there was so much that was taken away from me—not just part of my body but also confidence in my health. Nobody ever says, “Your cancer is gone,” because even if it looks like they got it, the cancer cells could still be there somewhere and they could reactivate at some point. I’ve still got cancer hanging over my head, so I feel like I can be a little bit selfish and enjoy this time now.