IRMS patient Tricia Russo shares her journey of infertility and cancer in her award winning documentary Love Always, Mom

Tricia with her baby

It is insane to think that it was 5 years ago that we first sat down with Dr. Cekleniak of IRMS at Saint Barnabas to see if I could harvest eggs before I was administered chemotherapy. I was 30 years old and had been on the birth control pill for most of my adult years, and some teen years. I needed to start chemotherapy right away so waiting for my eggs to rebound from the impact of the birth control, and do an egg retrieval, was not an option for me. I’ll never forget Dr. Cekleniak’s comfort in this moment of excruciating emotional turmoil. Everyone was so focused on treating the cancer that it seemed the side effects or life effects of the cancer and/or the treatment weren’t even a topic of conversation. Dr. Cekleniak knew the pain I was feeling and validated the loss. She comforted me by saying, we may not be able to try this now but that we could revisit in the future. I held onto that future hope with both of my hands. I committed to being on my medications for a couple years with the promise that I’d get off the meds and have a baby. This is when I was early stage and hope came pretty easily- all things considered.

But then a year after initial diagnosis, the breast cancer spread to my brain. It was metastatic breast cancer. Stage 4. I had brain surgery and the tumor was resected and my life of quarterly brain scans on top of regular body scans ensued. I sought multiple opinions and every doctor’s face seemed to furrow with confusion when I asked about when I might be able to start a family. I actually had one oncologist, a female oncologist at that, who in all sincerity, in response to my flood of tears when she said, “She’d never recommend I have a child” followed up with, “What’s wrong? It is not like I’m telling you that you have to have your ovaries removed.” Huh? What? Why do I need my ovaries if I’m never going to have a child? Don’t you think that what you are telling me is something similar? These are all things that I thought but didn’t say. With the stage 4 diagnosis, my plan of ever carrying a baby myself exploded into a million different pieces.

My tumors had been tested and we knew my cancer was estrogen sensitive, so ultimately, we decided to go on a journey to find an egg donor and a gestational carrier to build our family. I say that now and it almost sounds easy, but it was anything BUT easy. It was HARD. I think that anything that is against your expectations is particularly hard and we have so many expectations for our lives when we think about building a family. I thought my husband and I would have fun trying to get pregnant. I mean the act that leads to pregnancy can be pretty darn fun, right? I thought I’d skip my period, pee on a stick, and we’d celebrate. I thought my body would get ripe with womanhood as I grew our baby in my belly. My breasts, for once, would get big as they prepared for the nourishment that I’d give our child. I envisioned the way that my husband would look at me with pride, protection, and love as he witnessed the miracle that was going on in my body and the sacrifice I was making to produce our child. Maybe he’d even give me a foot rub? I was scared of the labor part but I knew I’d make it through and that the reward would be this beautiful creature lying on my chest. Honestly, I’m bawling my eyes out right now envisioning all of this. It is what didn’t happen and I’ve had to let it go like dandelion seeds in the wind, but we all know it isn’t that easy. I tried my hardest to hold onto those seeds, but ultimately, when I accepted that I would not be contributing DNA to my child, and when I accepted that I wouldn’t be able to grow him or her inside of me, I planted different seeds.

We found an incredible egg donor and a gestational carrier through agencies. We now have incredible relationships with both women AND their families. I have a caveat here that this is not necessarily normal. You can choose to have an anonymous egg donor. You can be as involved or not involved in the pregnancy as you and your gestational carrier agree upon. The most important part is envisioning your expectations and clearly sharing them as you find the right fit. For my husband and me, we always wanted a relationship with our egg donor and gestational carrier so we found people that wanted that as well. It is such a personal decision but frankly, I’m glad that we did, as when we had our baby and became a family, we became a BIGGER family than I ever imagined. We call our egg donor and our gestational carrier “Aunts.” They both attended our son’s first birthday party (and that wasn’t the first time they’d seen him since birth). I was a bridesmaid in our egg donor’s wedding and at the reception sat next to her father, who we affectionately call “bio pop,” and he turned to me and said, “It is so wonderful to have you as part of the family.” Family- that is what it is all about and I promise you that no matter how you create your family, when you hold your child in your arms, you won’t care what you had to do to have that child. In fact, I’ve convinced myself that my son wouldn’t be my son if it weren’t for every single thing that happened. I’d do it all over again, exactly the same way, because it would be him.

We had another layer on top of our experience, we filmed a documentary about having our child. At the time we picked up the camera, we knew we’d need a gestational carrier, but did not know yet that we’d need an egg donor. As a filmmaker, I was there when my egg donor and gestational carrier took some of their injections. I felt both a mix of guilt and love as I watched their bodies change during the process. There were definitely points where I think they said they were glad they were doing it this one time, but that they likely wouldn’t do it again. They both have since said they’d do it again, for me. For now, we are perfectly happy with our son, but it is nice to know we have options. For this, I feel very fortunate to have found, Dr. Cekleniak and the IRMS team. I think they truly perform miracles. For some those miracles are faster than for others, but when the road is long, please remember my story. You are not alone. Those times you want to give up, feel them, experience them. They are painful and awful but they will also make the joy you’ll one day feel that much more splendid.

We are eternally grateful to IRMS for allowing us to film this documentary so you can witness some of the process. If this is a road, or even part of a road that you need to pursue, you’ll learn a little bit more about what lies ahead. Best of luck on your journey and remember that Plan Z, may be better than Plan A, B, or C. If you want to find out more about our journey- check out our trailer at www.cyangray.org, like us on Facebook @LoveAlwaysMomtheMovie where you’ll see reviews, screening announcements, and learn more about the research that the documentary ultimately funds, and make a donation to help us on our mission.

Tricia Russo previously worked in development for Walt Disney Motion Pictures and Miramax Films after earning her MFA at USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program. Tricia was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and is now living with stage 4 breast cancer. In 2015, Tricia founded The Cyan Gray Hope Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit focusing on creating content to raise awareness, and ultimately funding for more research, for metastatic breast cancer and infertility issues. The foundation’s first project, the feature length documentary LOVE ALWAYS, MOM, captures her journey to start a family through egg donation and surrogacy, while living with stage 4 cancer. The documentary World Premiered at the Bentonville Film Festival, co-founded by Geena Davis, in May 2018 and won the Best Documentary Audience Award. Tricia has served as a keynote speaker for the Avon Foundation and Healing Gardens of NWA. She runs an in-person support group for young women with metastatic breast cancer in Los Angeles and a private online Facebook group for women using alternative reproductive technology to build their families. Follow on Facebook & Instagram @lovealwaysmomthemovie to learn about future screenings and to join the journey. www.cyangray.org

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