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This Mother’s Day: A Journey Through Fertility Preservation, Surrogacy and Sisterhood

This Sunday is Mother’s Day. Many of you may have plans with your family doing your best to ensure that the day is celebrated, and the women in your life who fit this profile, past and present, are honored in some way. It goes without saying that being a mom is rewarding, but it can also have its challenges so it’s only right that we have one calendar day each year designated to showing gratitude for motherhood. That being said, what constitutes motherhood, comes in all different shapes and sizes…

In 2008, at age 26, Melissa Brown was diagnosed with breast cancer. Cancer was no stranger to her family – her mother had been battling breast cancer on and off since she was two years old.  Melissa had been giving herself breast exams since she was 12 so when she found the pea-sized lump in her breast, she knew something was amiss.  Within days of finding that lump, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and would eventually undergo chemotherapy (side by side with her mother) and have a bilateral mastectomy. Thankfully in Melissa’s case, her oncologist, the same one who had been treating her mother for 20 years, encouraged her to preserve her fertility before she began treatment for her cancer. Following his advice, she began taking fertility drugs to produce multiple eggs for fertilization, and with the help of her fiancée Steve, banked 4 embryos prior to cancer treatment.

Melissa’s cancer treatment was filled with highs and lows – she married Steve, and lost her mom to cancer. Following treatment, she wanted to have a baby with her new husband, however her oncologist recommended that if she wanted to have children, she use a gestational carrier or surrogate due to the possibility of cancer recurrence. Melissa was at a crossroads, until her younger sister Jessica, 25 at the time, said that she would carry Melissa’s babies for her. Melissa realizing the breadth of Jessica’s kindness and the responsibility she would undertake, agreed, but only after lengthy discussions and a little bit of soul searching.

Months earlier, Melissa and Steve banked their embryos at UPenn with the assistance of Oncofertility Consortium member, Dr. Clarisa Gracia. Now, under different circumstances, Melissa (with her sister in tow) was meeting with Dr. Gracia to discuss surrogacy. Dr. Gracia recognized that Jessica was not the ideal surrogate – she was young and had not given birth before, having no children yet. Complications could arise from a pregnancy, potentially leaving Jessica unable to have her own children one day. According to Gracia, “I was very concerned from the get-go, [but] she just really wanted to do this for her sister.”

In 2010, Dr. Gracia transferred two of the 4 embryos into Jessica’s uterus – both implanted, resulting in twins. Nine months later, Melissa and Steve were parents to Brendan and Gabriella via C-section. This Mother’s Day, as the twins are learning to walk, Melissa and Jessica will celebrate their mother’s memory and the bond that they have, which has only been strengthened through this journey. Read Melissa and Jessica’s entire story on Time.com, by author Bonnie Rochman, entitled, “My Sister, My Surrogate: After Battling Cancer, One Woman Receives the Ultimate Mother’s Day Gift.”

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