For 30-year-old Maggie Paxton, realizing she wouldn't be able to get pregnant was even worse than receiving a cancer diagnosis. But with her amazing sister's help, she's expecting twins.
Maggie Paxton waited anxiously for her doctor's call with her husband and her sister, Morgan Williams, by her side. After she got the news—it was breast cancer—they all burst into tears. As the reality of the diagnosis sank in, another wave of sadness came over her when she found out the disease would affect her chances of having a safe pregnancy. "Finding out I could not get pregnant was more devastating than finding out about the cancer," Paxton tells Fit Pregnancy. "My world literally felt like it came tumbling down on top of me."
A devastating diagnosis
Paxton's breast cancer, rare for someone so young, was found accidentally after her doctor sent her for a mammogram to check out some nipple discharge. That turned out to be caused by a benign tumor, but the mammogram revealed an additional mass that was, in fact, cancerous. "We don't screen patients for breast cancer until age 40, so by the time Maggie would have felt this mass, the chances are it would have already spread," says Lisa S. Wang, MD, Paxton's oncologist at PIH Health in Whittier, California.
Dr. Wang wanted to move fast to chemotherapy and then to a double mastectomy. But along with decisions on treatment came the realization that pregnancy was likely not going to be possible for Paxton. One of chemo's side effects is often infertility; and in addition, her cancer was ER/PR positive, which means it feeds off estrogen and progesterone, two hormones that skyrocket in pregnancy. "I believe God put me on this earth to be a mom, but in one second, that all was taken away from me," Paxton says. "I accepted it with the help from my husband who told me, 'You will be a mom, just not in a traditional fashion.'"
Williams wanted to support her sister in any way she could. She remembers the day Paxton found out she wouldn't be able to get pregnant. "She called me when they left the doctor's office and she was crying," Williams says. "I don't think the cancer in that moment was what was scary for her, it was being told, 'You can't get pregnant.'" After discussing the idea of using a gestational carrier (i.e., a surrogate) to have children, Williams says she told Paxton, "This will happen. I will do it for you. It will happen!!"
Wang advised Paxton to have her eggs retrieved before treatment began, to be fertilized with her husband's sperm and frozen for use later on. "Even at that point there wasn't too much thought about a gestational carrier," she says. "We knew at some point we would have to go down that road but it was one thing at a time. I just needed to get the eggs out so I could start chemo." Because time was of the essence, Wang quickly got her in to see a fertility specialist.
A sister's sweetest gift
During chemo, Paxton was focused on treating her cancer—planning for her future family would have to wait. "I knew that I had to get healthy first before my husband and I could think about bringing children into this world," she says. But when the chemo was over and her prognosis looked good, she revisited the idea of using a gestational carrier. "I was over one day visiting and Maggie said to me, 'We need to talk to you,'" Williams says. "She then said, 'Danny and I would like to officially ask you if you would be our surrogate?' I said, 'Of course!' I was all in." For Williams, there wasn't even a question in her mind: She was going to do whatever she could to give her sister the family she always dreamed of.
Williams became pregnant with twins, and is now six months along. Paxton says seeing her sister carry her babies is bittersweet. "It's like an emotional roller coaster—so happy, grateful and exciting, but that also comes with a little sadness that I will never know what it's like to be pregnant," she says. "There are times I look at her and wish the babies were in me. But I know once those babies are here it's going to feel like they have been with me all along."
Although she says there's no question who the babies' mom is, Williams admits she was a little unsure how to talk about the pregnancy with her sister. "I had asked her in the beginning if we needed to set boundaries about sharing information—I can't imagine what she feels like not being able to feel her own baby move inside of her," she says. "She told me that she wants to know everything. So I tell her what I experience and what I go through so that she feels like she's a part of it." This includes describing one of the babies as an "octopus," which Williams says makes them laugh.
Even after everything she's been through, Paxton is thankful for how things have turned out. "I don't know what my life would be like if I was never diagnosed, but what I do know is that my sister was supposed to carry these babies for me," she says. "Planning for the birth of my twin daughters has given me a new outlook on life. Maybe I have gone through all of this to put me right where I am today, knowing that my daughters are safe and healthy, and so am I. My husband and I will forever be indebted to her, and I can't wait to see her be the best auntie to these little girls."