A primary school teacher who launched an online appeal to find a surrogate after treatment for bowel cancer at 29 left her unable to have a baby, is now looking forward to being a mum—as her cousin is 18 weeks pregnant with her child.
Cancer free for two years, Olivia Rowlands, 31, and her husband Sam, 30, a gym owner and trainee counsellor, have thanked the media for their good fortune, as over 100 people—including her cousin, Ellie Hutchinson, 34—offered to be their surrogate, after reading of their plight back in September 2018.
With just a 10 day window between her diagnosis and her treatment starting in which to harvest her eggs, Olivia—whose womb was damaged by radiotherapy—and Sam managed to create four embryos.
Olivia and Sam with the scan picture (PA Real Life/Collect)
And the couple, of St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, are expecting their first child on July 19, created with her egg and his sperm, but carried by mum-of-one Ellie, a bank risk manager, from Stirling, Scotland, with the full support of her husband Ryan, 36, a fuel tank inspector.
“Ellie read about our plight in a newspaper and immediately offered to act as the 'oven'."
“I don't think there is a word to say how I will feel when I hold our baby. I think I will just feel whole and complete. It's hard to explain."
Olivia and Sam with Ellie and the scan picture (PA Real Life/Collect)
“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 having fertility treatment, January 6, 2018(Collect/PA Real Life)
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.
But in 2015, she started having 'tummy trouble,' which eventually led to her being 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.
At 8cm, her tumor was too large to remove. Instead, she needed a five week 'sandwich' of radiotherapy and chemotherapy to shrink it.
But treatment was delayed when she was diagnosed with sepsis—a potentially deadly complication of an infection—which doctors suspected had been triggered by the colonoscopy, an examination of her intestines and rectum, and required emergency surgery to drain the septic areas and fit her with a colostomy bag.
Told the radiotherapy would damage her womb, in the 10 days before it started, she had her eggs harvested, only for her treatment to be 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 tumor could be removed by surgery, during which her colostomy would also be replaced by a reversible ileostomy.
Ryan, Ellie, Sam and Olivia (PA Real Life/Collect)
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.
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, in September 2018 Olivia, who had been sharing her cancer journey through her blog and on Instagram, hit headlines when she launched an online appeal to find a stranger willing to carry their baby.
“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."
Olivia with the scan picture (PA Real Life/Collect)
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 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.
“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."
In March, the surrogacy process began.
Olivia waking up after egg extraction, January 2018 (Collect/PA Real Life)
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 counseling before treatment, which is part of the process.
Olivia and Sam, Christmas 2016 (Collect/PA Real Life)
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."
Ellie, Sam, Olivia and Ryan on transfer day (PA Real Life/Collect)
“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'."
Olivia in hospital on the day she was diagnosed (Collect/PA Real Life)
“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."
Olivia struggling with chemo, March 8, 2018 (Collect/PA Real Life)
“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.
Olivia at her first chemo session, March 7, 2018 (Collect/PA Real Life)
During the four agonizing 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."
Olivia and Sam celebrating embryo fertilisation, January 2016 (Collect/PA Real Life)
“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."
Olivia completing radiotherapy (Collect/PA Real Life)
“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."
Olivia and Sam (PA Real Life/Collect)
“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."
Sam, Ellie, Olivia and Ryan on transfer day (PA Real Life/Collect)
“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.
Sam and Olivia on their wedding day (Duke Studios/PA Real Life)
“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."
“It is an unusual thing, but I think if I was in her shoes, I would feel more comfortable having a family member."
Olivia and Sam on transfer day (PA Real Life/Collect)
“The first meeting between us all cemented it in our minds—that it was the right thing to do."
Feeling that she was pregnant, when Ellie took the test after seven days, she was delighted that it had worked.
“With a 50 per cent chance, we were so happy that we kept doing tests to make sure."
“And then when we had the scare, we were determined that we would keep the journey going. When we found the heartbeat Olivia and Sam were in bits. There was such a sense of relief."
“It's been a really easy pregnancy so far. I have not had any morning sickness, which I also didn't have with Caleb."
“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 honored that I can help them create a family."
To follow their journey visit Olivia's blog or search on Instagram for @oliviasgotguts