Toni and Ashley's Story

Thanks to embryo freezing fertility preservation, the most incredible gift from a sister, and the support of the CARE Fertility Birmingham team, one cancer survivor beat the odds to start her family.

Cancer survivor Toni (left) with sister and surrogate Tara (right), holding baby Jenson.

Cancer survivor Toni (left) with sister and surrogate Tara (right), holding baby Jenson.

Finding out that treatment for a medical condition could impact future fertility often prompts a wave of overwhelming emotions and questions. In particular, cancer patients sometimes just assume that their diagnosis means the end of their fertility, and that nothing can be done, but this is not the case. With great advancements in fertility preservation techniques and the support of a truly expert, empathetic medical team, one CARE Birmingham patient wants others with a cancer diagnosis to know that there is hope, and that there are always things that can be done to help you realise your dream of family.

 

In 2012, Toni Smith, then aged 22, discovered that she had cervical cancer. Knowing that treatment could make her infertile, Toni and her husband Ashley decided to take steps to preserve their chances of having children in the future by creating and freezing embryos before Toni’s treatment with the team at what is now CARE Fertility Tamworth.

When Toni and Ashley decided to try for a family using their frozen embryos, the couple came to CARE Birmingham to explore their options, with our Medical Director, Dr. Madhurima Rajkhowa, coordinating their treatment. Toni’s cancer treatment left her unable to be pregnant, meaning that she would need a surrogate to be the recipient of the couple’s little embryo and carry the baby.

There are many reasons why patients would need the help of a surrogate in their fertility treatment, such as same-sex male couples looking to start their family, or for patients like Toni, for whom it would be impossible or unsafe to become pregnant and give birth. At CARE, our fundamental philosophy is that ‘family is for everyone’, and we always do everything possible to give patients the best experience with their fertility treatment, with each clinic’s Donation team, dedicated surrogacy coordinator, and specialist fertility counsellor supporting patients when finding their surrogate and helping everyone involved throughout their journey.

The first step in having fertility treatment with a surrogate is to find someone to be your surrogate, and this can be someone you know or someone you’ve found through a surrogacy agency. For Toni and Ashley, this wasn’t a challenge, with Toni’s sister, Tara, volunteering to help the couple: “I always said I would carry her children when they harvested her eggs and froze them,” says Tara.

Though Tara always knew she would help Toni and Ashley in their dream of becoming parents with her immensely generous gift, there are always important factors to consider with surrogacy, with the CARE Birmingham team using every ounce of their experience, and their empathy, to ensure the whole family were as supported and informed as possible.

One way we support our patients is with free counselling appointments with our specialist fertility counsellor at CARE Birmingham, who has extensive experience in all aspects of donation and surrogacy. Counselling provides a safe and supportive space for individuals and couples to talk through their treatment and explore their emotions, but also to make sure that everyone involved is happy with their decisions, understands all the different aspects of their treatment, and feels comfortable and confident moving forwards.

 

Baby Jenson after being born following the family’s treatment with CARE Fertility Birmingham.

 

Every fertility journey is emotional, but having treatment with a surrogate is particularly emotionally complex, as there are another person’s feelings to consider. Just like Tara, all the surrogates we have had the great privilege of supporting at CARE Birmingham have been immensely kind and generous people who are committed to helping others with what is most precious to them: their family. Even though our amazing surrogates are completely dedicated to carrying the baby for the intended parents, there are so many things to consider, and emotions to explore, during treatment, and so all our surrogates have free appointments with our specialist counsellors too.

Of course, it is not just an individual who is affected by the gift of being a surrogate, but also the surrogate’s family, who provide essential support – physical and emotional – through every day of the pregnancy. That’s why it’s fundamental that surrogates and their families are supported, and why we offer counselling for all our surrogates and for their partners. At CARE Birmingham, and all CARE clinics, counselling can be as an individual or as part of a couple, but for surrogacy counselling, we ask intended parents, surrogates and their partners (if they have one), to meet individually and then together as a group before starting treatment. This meant that Toni and Ashley, and Tara and her husband, spoke with our counsellor individually before coming together for a group appointment.

One especially important aspect to consider with surrogacy are the legal implications of treatment. Our teams always encourage surrogacy patients to seek legal advice to make sure they understand these legal intricacies, and though the legal details of surrogacy can be complicated, our team will always be happy to answer patients’ questions.

Once we were sure that Toni, Ashley and Tara were happy with every aspect of treatment, all the teams at CARE Birmingham worked together, using all their expertise and knowledge, to make Toni and Ashley’s dream of family a reality.

First, our embryology team carefully thawed one of Toni and Ashley’s embryos. As their embryos weren’t at the optimum blastocyst stage before freezing, our embryology team helped culture the embryo to the best possible quality blastocyst, ready for transfer. As we planned to transfer the embryo into Tara with her natural cycle, our clinical team then used all their technical expertise to precisely match the development of the embryo with the best time to transfer based on Tara’s cycle, completing their treatment with a single embryo transfer.

“A week after the transfer, I found I was pregnant,” says Tara. “Ashley couldn't believe it. He was so excited. When I rang Toni, my little sister just burst into tears.”

We were all so delighted to hear the amazing news! Our teams continued to support the whole family throughout the pregnancy, and nine months later, beautiful baby Jenson was born at 6lb 5oz, one and a half weeks early on 9th June at Russells Hall Hospital, Dudley.

Tara is so delighted to have been able to help her sister with the most precious gift: “After the birth, I was happy to see Toni, and later Ashley, looking so happy. I can’t begin to tell people how proud I am to have given my sister a chance to be a mother.”

 

Baby Jenson on his way home from Russells Hall Hospital in Dudley.

 

With Jenson now safely at home with his parents, Toni and Ashley have had time to reflect on their incredible journey to parenthood. “Jenson is our little miracle,” Toni beams, “We are forever thankful for what Tara has done. It’s hard to put into words how grateful we are and how much pride I have for my sister.”

The CARE Birmingham team are equally thrilled for this amazing family: “At CARE Birmingham, we are always beyond delighted for every CARE patient who starts their family with our help, but Toni, Ashley and Jenson are particularly special to us considering their difficult journey,” shares Dr. Madhurima Rajkhowa, Medical Director at CARE Birmingham and the Smith family’s consultant. “To me, one of the key messages here is about options and hope: for everyone who has recently had a diagnosis of cancer or another fertility-impacting condition, know that you have options to still have a family, and that we can help you.

“The Smith family’s story is of course especially remarkable because of the incredible kindness and generosity of Tara. Though we have had cases of family members being a surrogate before, it is relatively uncommon, but, as in this wonderful story, makes for the most amazing gift. Our core belief is ‘Family is for everyone’, and it is truly touching to see families come together to help achieve that dream.

“This story is the perfect testament to what can be achieved with the powerful combination of advanced science and love. We are committed to giving every one of our patients their best chance of starting their family, taking the time to listen and understand, combining our world-leading science with the compassion and empathy of our amazing staff. This, combined with the amazing generosity of Tara, has resulted in a beautiful baby boy for Toni and Ashley. It was our absolute privilege to help this wonderful family achieve their dream, and a huge congratulations again to everyone!”

 

Parents Toni and Ashley with baby Jenson.