One in eight women will get breast cancer in their lifetime. Inheriting the BRCA gene, prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews, means chances increase to more than 50%. A terrifying diagnosis at any age, young women might face a uniquely devastating loss. Chemotherapy may cause permanent infertility, and tamoxifen, the drug commonly used in long- term therapy, causes birth defects if taken while pregnant. Furthermore, as adoption becomes increasingly competitive, cancer survivors are unlikely to be approved.
Now, science has given women another option, but it requires foresight at a time when thinking beyond tomorrow seems impossible. Harvesting a woman’s eggs and freezing embryos before treatment can bring back hopes of having a child. Sometimes women can carry the unborn child, and sometimes they require the help of a surrogate. As Becky, Greg and now little Jackson Ewer proved, the results could mean a dream come true.
This story starts when Becky met Greg at a friend’s party in 2007. A violinist for the Oregon Symphony, Greg’s initial attraction was a mutual love of Jean Marie Leclair duets, which they played together on their first date. Originally from Seattle, Becky minored in music at Skidmore College before moving to Portland. By 2009 they’d set the wedding date for August 2010.
“I went in for a regular checkup with Dr. Stella Dantas, my ob/gyn,” Becky says. Tears come to her eyes when she remembers how everything changed on Feb. 23, 2010.
“The doctor felt a lump and said, ‘I want to send you to a specialist,’ ” Becky says. “Nothing showed up on the mammogram but during the ultrasound, the technician had worried eyes. It was scary. The radiologist did a biopsy right then. On Tuesday, the surgeon’s nurse called and said, ‘Are you in a quiet place; are you sitting down? You have invasive ductal carcinoma.’ ” Becky was 35 years old.
The lumpectomy a few weeks after her diagnosis revealed further issues. After testing negative for the BRCA gene, Becky decided on a one-sided mastectomy (a positive result would have meant two). Debilitating chemotherapy followed – “I did four rounds of two drugs, and had everything from a fever, nausea and gross taste in my mouth to big-time fatigue.” Her five-year course of tamoxifen began after the final reconstructive surgery.
Throughout the ordeal, Becky continued her job at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, where she is now marketing director. “I did work but had a lot of sick time,” she says. “I took a week off per round. The MJCC and Portland Jewish Academy were amazing; they were super supportive.”
Meanwhile the couple postponed their wedding and considered what cancer could mean to future hopes for a family. Now Becky wishes she’d thought of harvesting eggs sooner. “There was a chance with the chemotherapy treatment that I could go into menopause,” she says. “They have to tell patients at the first visit, because if you harvest eggs before you’ve had surgery, you have a better chance. Here we were in the middle of cancer, and we hadn’t got married yet. I harvested eggs and fertilized four. They say 12 would mean a good chance of having it work. I think I had a lower number because I’d just gone through two surgeries. It was a difficult time.”
Race for the Cure
Karen Wagner joined 74 others to form Becky’s Team at the 2010 Komen Race for the Cure. “We all walked together; I had a big blue balloon,” she says. An oboist for the Oregon Symphony, she’d met Becky over brunch a decade before and held the party where Becky and her future husband Greg met.
On April 17, 2011, Becky and Greg married in Seattle with Becky’s sister, Rabbi Marla Hornsten, officiating. The couple began researching surrogacy and grants to help with the prohibitive costs. They found Fertile Action (fertileaction. org), an organization started by breast cancer survivor Alice Crisci. They received the good news that they were accepted around Thanksgiving. The next stop was Agency for Surrogacy Solutions (surrogacysolutionsinc.com), where they would team up with a surrogate match.
“You fill out a huge questionnaire,” Becky says. “What type of person are you, and what do you like or dislike? Do you want to be in the room during the birth? Are you open to selectively reducing the number of embryos? What would you do if the fetus had Down syndrome? We drew up a 40-page contract with the lawyer. Then, we shipped the frozen embryos to HRC Fertility (havingbabies.com) in Los Angeles.”
Becky and Greg flew to Los Angeles to join the surrogate for the transfer. After thawing the four embryos, Dr. Robert Boostanfar told them that three had survived. One was good quality and two were average. “We were in the room and could see the surrogate’s uterus on the monitor,” Becky says. “The following Friday she sent the results of her pregnancy test. We freaked out. We had one shot and it worked.”
“It’s amazing to look at these babies and know that their development was suspended for years,” Alice Crisci says. “My son was frozen with eight cells and now look at him. I named him Dante because it means enduring.”
Alice preserved her eggs three weeks after her breast cancer diagnosis. It cost $30,000, and she left the clinic determined to help those with limited means. “Young women going through cancer are living long, healthy lives and deserve the chance to make their dreams come true,” she says. She founded Fertile Action and started a pilot program. Becky and Greg Ewer were the first recipients.
Surrogacy can cost up to $120,000. Fertile Action saves people $50,000 to $60,000 by arranging donated services from professionals such as doctors, lawyers and the surrogacy agency. “We don’t give cash,” Alice says. “We have a selection committee and extensive application process. The woman has to prove financial need and the ability to pay the remaining fees. Health is a consideration; she must have a good long-term prognosis. Becky and Greg were the strongest candidates, but it was a big risk because you don’t have a good chance with just four embryos. They will be amazing parents. Jackson is a miracle beyond miracles.”
The surrogate sent Becky and Greg copies of her regular ultrasounds. In January, they learned their expected child was a boy. With the due date close, they flew to Utah where the surrogate lived and were in the room during their son’s birth on May 27, 2014.
She and Greg are happy to share their experience and advice.
“If you are interested in having a child and face chemotherapy, take the possibility that you may not be able to do this seriously,” Greg says. “There are many ways to have a baby so explore those options. Go with your gut, trust your instincts, ask questions and do your research. It’s a long road. Be patient.”
Greg loves playing violin for his tiny infant son. “There’s something new and fresh every day,” he says. “It’s amazing. When you’ve gone through what we have, you don’t take a child for granted. We were so lucky that this could work.”
Becky's story was written by Polina Olsen for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine.
August 2018 Update:
Becky and Greg welcomed a second miracle on May 14th, 2018! For this pregnancy, Becky was cleared by her oncologist to carry the baby. She had always wanted to be pregnant and feared breast cancer had taken that experience away from her. They named her Nina after Becky’s grandfather Nathan and her grandmother, who was called Nini by her grandchildren. The name is also a tribute to the women from the Young Survivors Portland peer support group who are no longer here with us, especially one very spirited and spunky member named Nina Morrison who passed away last year.