AFTER battling life-threatening bowel cancer – Olivia Rowlands thought her dream of becoming a mum had come to an earth-shattering end.
A gruelling five week ‘sandwich’ of radiotherapy and chemotherapy to shrink her 8cm tumour had damaged her womb.
And the primary school teacher, 31, was devastated at the prospect of not being able to have kids with her husband Sam, 30, a gym owner and trainee counsellor.
However, Olivia was still to get the happy ending she deserved – as her cousin Ellie, Hutchinson 34, decided to give her the ultimate gift.
Mum-of-one Ellie, a bank risk manager, from Stirling, Scotland, selflessly offered to be Olivia and Sam's surrogate after reading about their story – and is now 18-weeks pregnant with the couple's unborn baby.
And Olivia and Sam, of St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, are counting down the days to having their first child on July 19.
Now cancer-free for two years, Olivia said: "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.
"We just can’t wait to be parents, we are so ready. Sam keeps saying ‘I was born to be a dad. I think I’ll cry for a month when I see you with a wee one.’
"Cancer stole my chance of carrying a baby and put me into early menopause, but it cannot stop me being a mum."
Olivia and Sam met as students at university in Bath in 2011, falling in love and tying the knot in St Andrews, Scotland, in 2014.
We just can’t wait to be parents, we are so ready
However, in 2015, Olivia started having "tummy trouble", had lost almost two stone in weight and was experiencing considerable pain, as well as noticing blood in her stools.
This eventually led to her being diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer at the age of 29 in December 2017.
She was forced to have radiotherapy and chemotherapy to shrink her tumour – which medics said was too large to remove.
Despite this, treatment was delayed when she was diagnosed with sepsis – a potentially deadly complication of an infection.
Doctors suspected it had been triggered by the colonoscopy, an examination of her intestines and rectum, and Olivia required emergency surgery to drain the septic areas and fit her with a colostomy bag.
Told the radiotherapy would damage her womb, in the ten days before it started, Olivia had her eggs harvested.
However, her treatment was halted four days in when the sepsis returned, as she needed all her energy to fight it.
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 Olivia 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.
With Olivia’s health restored she and Sam turned their attention to starting a family and joined Surrogacy UK.
But the waiting list was so long and in September 2018 Olivia hit headlines when she launched an online appeal to find a stranger willing to carry their baby.
She said: “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."
Despite being cousins, Olivia, who was brought up in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and went to boarding school, had no memory of meeting Ellie, whose father was Olivia’s uncle on her mother, Margaret Baxter’s side.
So, in January 2019, once their life had settled following the barrage of treatment, Olivia and Sam met Ellie and her husband Ryan, 36, a fuel tank inspector, at her house in Stirling, just an hour away, along with her aunt Trisha Sweeney, who had told scattered family members about her niece’s cancer.
Olivia said: "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."
It felt different with a family member offering to do it
In March, the surrogacy process began.
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.
And host surrogacy, where the embryo is inserted into the body, must be done in a clinic that is registered with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.
In Olivia’s case the transfer took place at Ninewells Hospital in November, where her eggs were frozen and she had her cancer treatment.
Staff there also arranged for both couples to have counselling before treatment, which is part of the process.
And they had blood tests and genetic tests to check for things like cerebral palsy and the chances of the baby having any disabilities, before the embryo transfer took place.
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.
"It was really nerve wracking, but Sam keeps me grounded and makes me laugh when I’m worried," 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 ten 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 did find myself wishing I could feel pregnant
She said: "I woke up on the Saturday morning with a picture of the test and a text saying ‘Congratulations’.
"I was in complete shock and just burst into tears.
"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?’
"He was in total shock."
But their joy soon turned to terror when, at five weeks, Ellie started to experience cramps and bleeding and was convinced she was miscarrying.
During the four agonising days they spent waiting for a scan – because the embryo was too small to be detected until then – both couples tried to accept that the process had not worked, and to consider their next steps, with Ellie determined to keep trying for her cousin.
Olivia, who is also having an early menopause brought on by her treatment, recalled: "It felt very emotional, having a miscarriage without physically going through it, as I wasn’t carrying our baby.
"Sam said he had prepared himself for it, but I really hadn’t. I was so convinced it was going to work.
"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.
"Apparently, with an embryo, there can be a bleed around it, which must have been what it was.
"It was unbelievable. My mum and dad had even flown from Dubai to Glasgow to be with us because they were so worried, but we ended up celebrating instead of crying together."
She added: "It was amazing seeing the 12-week scan. We saw the wee one jumping around. It was so bizarre.
"Ellie has a wee bump and we’re just looking forward to the 20-week scan now, when we can find out the sex. We do have names in mind for a boy and a girl.
"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.
We just can’t wait to meet our baby
"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," she said.
No Time 2 Lose: Why The Sun campaigned for earlier bowel cancer screening
In 2018, The Sun, campaigners and Bowel Cancer UK, managed to persuade the government to lower the bowel cancer screening age from 60 to 50.
While the disease can strike a lot earlier (as in Olivia's case), the move could save more than 4,500 lives a year, experts say.
However, a date for roll out is yet to be confirmed.
Bowel cancer is the second deadliest form of the disease, but it can be cured if it's caught early – or better still prevented.
Caught at stage 1 – the earliest stage – patients have a 97 per cent chance of living for five years or longer.
But catch it at stage 4 – when it's already spread – and that chance plummets to just seven per cent.
In April, Lauren Backler, whose mum died of the disease at the age of 55, joined forces with The Sun to launch the No Time 2 Lose campaign, also supported by Bowel Cancer UK and Beating Bowel Cancer.
Lauren delivered a petition to the Department of Health complete with almost 450,000 signatures, to put pressure on the Government to make this vital change – one that could save thousands of lives every year, and the NHS millions.
We all deserve an equal chance to beat this disease, regardless of where we live.
We know bowel cancer is more likely after the age of 50 – so it makes sense to screen from then.
Plus, it's got to save the NHS money in the long-run, catching the disease before patients need serious and expensive treatments.
"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," she said.
"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.
"It is an unusual thing, but I think if I was in her shoes, I would feel more comfortable having a family member.
"We’re in contact all the time, I’m trying to keep her as informed as I can. It’s not our baby it’s theirs. I’m just an oven. That’s all it is.
"It just makes me feel honoured that I can help them create a family."
To follow their journey you can visit Olivia’s blog or her Instagram page here.
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