Woman’s cousin acts as surrogate as cancer treatment means she can’t have kids
When Olivia Rowlands was diagnosed with bowel cancer, she was told that treatment would damage her womb and she wouldn’t be able to carry her own children.
Although focused on getting better, Olivia, 31, and her husband Sam, 30, were devastated.
Before treatment, they managed to harvest her eggs and create four embryos but they knew they would need a surrogate to carry their baby.
The couple, from St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, launched an online appeal to find someone to help – and although they had over 100 people get in touch, a message from Olivia’s cousin Ellie Hutchinson, 34, who she hardly knew, stood out.
Now incredibly close, Ellie is carrying their first child and is due to give birth on July 19, with the full support of her husband Ryan, 36, a fuel tank inspector.
Primary school teacher Olivia has been cancer-free for two years and can’t wait to meet their daughter.
Olivia said: ‘Ellie read about our plight in a newspaper and immediately offered to act as the ‘oven.’
‘We keep calling Ellie our superhero. She’s our superhero human. It’s the best gift you can give anyone. We wouldn’t have a family without Ellie.’
Olivia started having ‘tummy trouble’ in 2015 but wasn’t diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer in December 2017, after she had lost almost two stone in weight and was experiencing considerable pain, as well as noticing blood in her stools.
Initially, she was told her 8cm tumour was too large to remove. Instead, she needed a five week ‘sandwich’ of radiotherapy and chemotherapy to shrink it.
The treatment would damage her womb and she had just 10 days to have her eggs harvested.
In the meantime, her consultant decided that some of the tumour could be removed by surgery, during which her colostomy would also be replaced by a reversible ileostomy.
So, in January 2018 she went under the knife at Dundee’s Ninewells Hospital, before starting four months of chemo and radiotherapy, after which in August 2018 she was given the all clear.
As Olivia got better, they started thinking about starting their family, aware they had four embryos waiting.
They turned to Surrogacy UK but the waiting list was so long, in September 2018 Olivia launched an online appeal to find a stranger willing to carry their baby.
She recalled: ‘After a newspaper article came out Ellie contacted me. She said she would love to offer her help, but that she totally understood if I didn’t want a family member to do it.
‘I said, “Yes, absolutely, 100 per cent we want to do it’.
‘I just burst into tears. I could not believe we’d found someone. On the back of the article about 100 people wrote to us, saying they wanted to be our surrogates. It was absolutely amazing – the kindness of people.’
She couldn’t remember ever meeting Ellie, as Olivia she was brought up in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and went to boarding school.
Ellie’s father was Olivia’s uncle on her mother, Margaret Baxter’s side.
So, in January 2019, Olivia and Sam met Ellie and her husband Ryan at her house in Stirling.
Olivia recalled: ‘We were so happy that Ellie still wanted to go ahead.
‘It felt different with a family member offering to do it. It just felt right. I don’t know what we would have done if she hadn’t offered.
‘She has a five-year-old son, Caleb, so she wanted to help give us a family too.’
They started the process in March and in November, the transfer took place at Ninewells Hospital, where her eggs were frozen and she had her cancer treatment.
According to the Scottish government, it is illegal to pay a surrogate for anything other than reasonable expenses including travel costs, treatment, maternity clothes and loss of earnings.
Olivia and Sam had four frozen embryos – two classed as ‘good’ and two as ‘really good’ – meaning they had a 50 per cent chance of working. One of the ‘really good embryos’ which was two weeks and five days old was finally used.
Olivia said: ‘We were told we had to wait two weeks after the transfer to take a pregnancy test. It was really hard, because obviously you want to know straight away.
‘I really had to keep myself busy and try not to keep bothering Ellie by asking her how she was feeling all the time.
‘I did find myself wishing I could feel pregnant and it hit me that I wouldn’t be carrying this little person, but I tried to put it to the back of my mind.
‘I kept thinking that this time last year I was just finishing treatment for cancer. I’m lucky to be here and I was lucky to have that 10-day window to freeze my eggs. I know a lot of people do not get that chance.’
Then, seven days after the transfer, Ellie sent Olivia a text asking if she could take a test – which, of course, she agreed to.
‘I woke up on the Saturday morning with a picture of the test and a text saying “Congratulations”‘ said Olivia.
‘Before all this, I had imagined how I would break the news to Sam that I was having a baby. Should I put a bun in the oven, or leave the test somewhere?
‘I’d watched hundreds of videos of pregnancy announcements over the years, but the element of surprise had been taken away from us.
‘We were babysitting for our friends that day and I had their 15-month-old baby in my arms. I was thinking about how to tell Sam, then this little one fell asleep as I held her and I just turned to him and said, “Is this a good time to tell you that we’re three weeks pregnant?”‘
At five weeks, they thought Ellie was miscarrying as she had cramps and bleeding and had to wait four days for the embryo to be big enough for a scan.
But their joy soon turned to terror when, at five weeks, Ellie started to experience cramps and bleeding and was convinced she was miscarrying.
But then they saw their baby on the screen for the first time, with a healthy heartbeat.
Olivia added: ‘Then everything changed again when we had the scan and saw this little heartbeat. It was the most surreal moment. Our little miracle was still alive.
Symptoms of bowel cancer
Signs of bowel cancer include:
- Bleeding from your bottom and/or blood in your poo
- A persistent and unexplained change in bowel habit
- Unexplained weight loss
- Extreme tiredness for no obvious reason
- A pain or lump in your tummy
‘Apparently, with an embryo, there can be a bleed around it, which must have been what it was.’
Now, they’ve found out the sex and are enjoying watching their baby grow.
Olivia said: ‘She will message me if she feels anything. Sam and I do a bit of singing, so we’ll record something on our phones and she can play it to the bump.
‘We also have an app that tells us about the wee miracle growing, the weight and what’s happening to them.
‘We just can’t wait to meet our baby!
‘We’ve started buying baby clothes and cuddly toys and we’re wallpapering the room ready.
‘Ellie will have a c-section as she did with her first son at Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Larbert, Falkirk. At the moment, we’ve been told only one of us can be in there with her but I’m hoping we will both be allowed in.’
For Ellie, the moment she read about her cousin, she knew she definitely wanted to help.
‘I knew Olivia had cancer and that kids were going to be difficult, because our aunt Trisha had kept us up to date, but when I read the article there was a big emphasis on her finding a surrogate. I think it just really hit home,’ Ellie said.
‘I floated the idea past Ryan and when I told him I really wanted to do it he was very supportive.
‘I felt like I’d been very lucky to be fit and healthy and I knew I could have more children, but didn’t want another.’
Friends and family members are aware of what is happening, while Ellie has already started talking to Caleb about it.
‘We have started reading him a story called The Kangaroo Pouch, which is a story about surrogacy, but we have not explained the full details of it yet. When he’s bigger we will talk it through with him.
‘Olivia is family and if the shoe was on the other foot, I hope someone would step forward for me.’