I was 33 when I received a Stage 3 hormonally sensitive breast cancer diagnosis. Within weeks of my diagnosis I underwent a full mastectomy to my left breast, the next stop of the Breast Cancer bus was active treatment. For me, that involved Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy.
As most people do, I struggled hugely with the thought of chemotherapy. The impact it would have on my physical appearance, the nausea that would come with it, the awareness of its devastating effects would pop to the front of my mind over and over again.
I looked around for women like me, British Asians, who had been through cancer and shared their stories. A face I could resonate with, a story I could empathise with, but they we few and far between.
I had been told during an early appointment with my oncologist that there was a chance I would face infertility secondary to chemotherapy. It was at that point that my journey with infertility began.
Indian girls are raised in a world full of social pressure. The pressure of physical beauty, light flawless skin, thick long dark hair, to be attractive to the opposite sex so that your marriage can be arranged when the time comes. The pressure to succeed academically so that you could find a job, earn a good wage and own a house larger than Mr Patel next door. The pressure to bring children into the world. To do so within the early years of marriage. The pressure always falling on the female partner, any issues perceived to be hers and not his. I knew that Chemo would strip away everything that was considered success and beauty within my life.
When the words infertility crept into my Oncology treatment plan, I sank deeper into the black hole cancer had landed me in.
I constantly wondered how I could get through cancer without telling anyone, and now I had to figure out one day becoming a Mother without anyone knowing my struggles. Of course, as time passed I realised that neither were possible.
I had heard about cancer patients harvesting eggs before Chemotherapy from online forums and spoke to my oncologist about it. I thought that if I could store my genetic material, one day (after this particular nightmare was over), I could have that material put back inside me, I could be just like everyone else. I could still be the person I was expected to be.
I was given 14 days to carry out IVF. To find the clinic, to find the money, to inject myself whilst guarding against feeding my tumour, to have eggs collected and fertilised, embryos created and frozen in time. 14 days to put all those practicalities in place, but not a second to deal with the emotional and mental struggle that this process brings. For me, that time with IVF was part of my treatment for cancer, it wasn’t about creating a life from a place of love.
It took time for me to fully comprehend what we had done in those two weeks, I often wondered why we chose to do it. Why did I think creating a life was a good idea, when my own life was surrounded by such fragility, I wondered if my husband would ever use those embryos if cancer stole my life, or if those tiny cells that contained a part of me would cease to exist the day that I did?
Fortunately for me, the words that I now read on Oncology papers, and the words that bring me such joy read are ‘In REMISSION’. Cancer didn’t steal my life; in fact, it gave me a whole new life.
Three years after my Breast Cancer diagnosis, my husband and I were on holiday. I became extremely unwell very quickly and was taken to A&E, from there things got worse and I was admitted to Cardiac Intensive Care. I had suffered acute Heart Failure, a delayed side effect from my Chemotherapy 3 years prior.
We were told I may not make it through, that my heart was so damaged it was barely able to pump blood around my body, we prepared for the worst. Somehow, I pulled through, and after months in a foreign country, was allowed to fly home with medical assistance. During my darkest days in ICU I had an awakening, it was as if a voice within me whispered that my time was not up, that I had to pull through; I heard it and believed it with every fibre of my being.
It was then that I received a message from a lady who had found me on a Surrogacy forum. I had been exploring Surrogacy as a route to motherhood for just over a year before I received this message. My oncologist had told me that falling pregnant would still involve risks around cancer recurrence rates, and I couldn’t get my head around becoming pregnant, experiencing motherhood, only to one day be told my cancer had returned.
It took a while to get my loved ones on board with a Surrogacy journey. Not only had they been brainwashed by stories in the media of journey’s that had gone wrong, but there was simply nobody within the Indian community who seemed to have been through it, and who was sharing their stories about it.
It became apparent very quickly that there were very few, if any, surrogates on the forums I became a part of who were of the same ethnicity as me. In fact, people of colour are difficult to find within this community. Whilst our community is happy to accept help in this way, we’ve not yet found the strength to give back to it. There wasn’t and still isn’t enough dialogue around these unconventional routes to motherhood, and as such, representation of minorities within the Surrogacy community are low.
Initially I was advised by people to go to India, to use a Surrogacy House, to create and bring this baby back to the UK without anyone knowing what we had been through.
Whilst this works well for some Intended Mothers, it never sat well for me. I wanted to be as present as I could be in the creation and growth of the little life that would one day be my world. I wanted to see the scans first hand, I wanted to feel the kicks, I wanted to know the woman who honoured my family with this precious gift of life, and for that reason, despite the issues I knew I would face around matching, whether a white woman would carry a coloured child, I chose and committed to UK based altruistic surrogacy.
After returning to England, focussing on my recovery and spending a year getting to know Ina, the person who messaged and stood by me when some doubted whether I would live or die, we found ourselves at our IVF clinic, ready for the transfer of our 5 day old embryo.
Ten days later, it was confirmed that we were pregnant, and nine months later, we became proud parents to our daughter Amaala, our pride and joy. Everyone around us welcomed Amaala into our lives, yet the lack of awareness around Surrogacy and how to talk of it in the South Asian community became apparent as people would ask me, ‘Is she yours?’. I always knew what this question meant, was she genetically mine? Why was that important was the question I wished I could ask back, but never had the strength vocalise? Why did it matter whose DNA runs through the veins of this beautiful, perfect, gift of a child?
I still find the way Amaala came to us miraculous, the events leading up to her birth exceptional. If it wasn’t for cancer and heart failure, she wouldn’t be the child she is today, and I wouldn’t be the mother I am today.
The tragedy to this part of our story came when our clinic discarded our remaining embryos without our consent. After transferring Amaala’s embryo our agreement was to re-freeze our remaining embryos. We knew there were at least four, however a clinical error meant that they were all thrown away, without a second thought to the devastating effects that this would have on us as a couple. A couple who could not collect further eggs, a couple who would never be able to make further embryos. Back then, and now still I mourn those little ice babies, the maybe babies, who were never given a chance, the babies that were stolen from us before we even had a chance to know them.
However, when Amaala arrived she brought with her so many life lessons, she taught me a love that I had never known before. She taught me that motherhood was so much more than a person giving birth, or the genetics we shared.
She taught me that what made me her mother was the love that I gave her, the protection she felt when she lay vulnerably in my arms. The comfort she felt at the sound of my voice, the feeling of home when I open my arms. She healed the wounds of the lost embryos and gave me the strength to move forward to the next chapter of my life.
We longed for a sibling for Amaala, a partner in crime who she would grow up with, the first friend she would know.
It was here that I began to look in to egg donation, and our options in this space. It became clear early on that finding an Indian egg donor was not going to be easy.
White friends would say to me, ‘Does it matter if your donor doesn’t share your skin tone? Why is it so important?’
That I guess is an example of white skinned person, not understanding the issues that surround people of colour; a circumstance that my fair skinned friends would rarely have to experience.
How in that moment could I explain how a donor with different skin tone could affect the future of my potential child forever? I am wholly comfortable with not sharing the genetics of my child yet a match in skin tone, is still a preference that I wanted to explore. Because I have grown up in a community where the colour of my skin has caused me suffering, where feeling like I looked differently to the rest of my class/friends/colleagues has left me feeling so isolated. I don’t want my baby to be exposed to that because he or she ‘looks’ different to Mummy and Daddy. It isn’t the only characteristic to look for in a donor but would be certainly be a nice to have.
In July 2019, our sibling journey took a very unexpected turn. After looking into our donor options more closely, I registered with an overseas agency. I felt a pull towards known egg donation. For me, it was an extension of my choice to undergo UK based surrogacy. Knowing that there was so little I could control about this journey, knowing I would be unable to carry the pregnancy, that I would require two women to help make me a Mum brought with it a desire to know as much as I could about the woman who would help me take the first step on this long winding road.
I remember receiving the profile of our egg donor. She had quoted one of my favourite quotes within her bio. He vibrancy flew out of the page and into my heart. Physically, she looked quite like me. I knew immediately that she would be the donor that I would request.
After getting the logistics of international egg donation and IVF in place, we flew to Cyprus where we would meet our donor and fertilise her eggs to create embryos. There was a familiarity around the process, yet so much of it felt brand new. IVF abroad comes with its own complexities to navigate! We met our donor after her egg retrieval. We shared stories of our past, we laughed and joked; but more than anything we cried. There were tears of relief for getting to this point. Tears of empathy for the journey’s that brought us all here. Tears of joy at future that we prayed would unfold. The more we spoke the more I knew that this was absolutely the right choice for us.
A few months later, I received a message from Ina, our surrogate who brought us Amaala. A change in her circumstances meant that she was unable to undertake the sibling journey we had spent the past 18 months planning. My world, once again, came crashing down. How could life be so unfair, how could we have come so far to have the dream taken away?
Time passed and I began to socialise on the surrogacy forums once again. I had created a family within this community, so many friendships made, friendships that would last a lifetime. It was through a friend that I was introduced to Laura. I didn’t know it then, but Laura would soon become the woman who gave us hope again. We matched with Laura within a few months, and soon found ourselves back in Cyprus, this time for our embryo transfer. I felt strangely calm. Laura is an experienced and incredible surrogate; she brought enough positivity for us both! We had our transfer and stayed in Cyprus for four days in all. When we returned home, we were in the dreaded two week wait. Seven days in, Laura sent me a photo. A positive pregnancy test, my heart leapt into my mouth, I couldn’t and still can’t believe how lucky we were. A few weeks later at a six-week scan, it was confirmed that we would soon become parents to multiples! Our emotions were off the scale, and now, here we are. Eagerly awaiting the arrival of our newest arrivals. In the middle of a pandemic, knowing the last time I boarded a plane, ahead of borders closing around the world, was with my Surrogate who was carrying an embryo created using a donor egg, to make me a Mum again.
Donor conception is complex, donors of colour are hard to find. Social conditions and perceptions of ‘giving away’ babies are still prevalent and as a result people of colour rarely register to become donors. Agencies still struggle to understand the differences and importance around the ethnicities of the donors on their books; with Intended Parents having to explain the difference between Indian, Mexican, Black or Chinese ethnicities. These are issues that white Intended Parents don’t have to contend with.
We need more voices; we need more stories. We need to educate more and to understand the resistance that’s present. To find a way to open conversations, so that more people of colour come forward to help their peers. So that more surrogates of colour can be found, more donors of colour. So that more families of colour can be built, and that currently unconventional routes to parenthood become more conventional.
I can’t thank Kreena enough for sharing her journey on my blog, her positivity despite such adversity amazes me and I’m sure it will inspire you too.
You can follow Kreena on Instagram @kreenadhiman and you can also listen to her podcast which she co-hosts called @theintendedparent.