Baby, that really is friendship! They had been inseparable since school. So when cancer meant Maiher couldn’t carry a child, Stephanie didn’t hesitate to make a remarkable offer. Here they describe how two became Mum
- Maiher Towers, 34, who lives in Paddock Wood, Kent, was diagnosed with cancer
- Reveals her best friend of 18 years Stephanie Skinner offered to be a surrogate
- Maiher says they are like an extended family since arrival of son Alex on April 7
There could not have been an act of altruism more spontaneous or heartfelt. When Maiher Towers told her best friend a cancer diagnosis would prevent her from having a second, longed-for child, the response was instantaneous.
Stephanie Skinner did not pause before she texted back: ‘The main thing is that you stay alive. I’ll take care of the baby. I’ll carry it for you.’ Stephanie, blessed with a complete nuclear family — two children; a boy and girl — did not even consult her husband Daniel before offering to be a surrogate for the friend with whom she’d shared joy and sadness, celebrations and commiserations, for 18 years.
She and Maiher, both 34, were as good as family, like sisters, in fact. There was no confidence they did not impart to each other, no personal drama they had not mutually overcome. ‘I’d just been diagnosed with a tumour on my appendix and I’d been given a stark choice,’ recalls Maiher. ‘My consultant told me that the surest way to prevent the cancer from spreading would be to have a full hysterectomy and extensive chemo.
‘That would mean I couldn’t have another child . . . I was in bits. My first impulse was to take the risk and try to get pregnant. I thought: “Cancer is not going to rob me of this second chance of a baby.” But then I thought that could be construed as selfishness. How would my husband James feel if he had to tell our daughter Charlotte: “Mummy died because she wanted another baby so much”?
Maiher Towers, 34, who was diagnosed with cancer of the appendix, reflects on going through treatment, while her best friend of 18 years Stephanie Skinner carried her baby. Pictured: Maiher, Stephanie and Alex
‘I was crying when I texted Steph. When she replied, “I’ll have the baby for you”, I was overwhelmed. I just couldn’t believe it — but it was typical of my amazing, selfless friend.’
Stephanie’s offer, in October 2018, was just the start. Nearly three tumultuous years ensued during which Maiher’s eggs were harvested — to be fertilised by James’ sperm — so Stephanie could carry a baby that was biologically her friend’s.
‘By the time I’d had the IVF procedure to collect my eggs in December 2018 the tumour had doubled in size to 12cm,’ says Maiher. ‘The surgeon told me it would have been a very different story if we’d waited until the New Year.’
More euphoric highs and devastating setbacks followed. Maiher survived life-threatening sepsis after which more cancer — this time of her pelvic lymph nodes — was discovered. She had intravenous chemotherapy and more surgery in October 2019.
Then, last July, Stephanie became pregnant on their first attempt at implanting an embryo. But after the jubilation came the awful news that Maiher’s cancer had returned, again in her pelvic lymph nodes. Yet more treatment followed.
But baby Alex was born in April this year, a wriggling bundle of joy who has sustained Maiher ever since.
The convolutions that preceded his arrival almost defy belief. It all began three years ago, when Maiher and James, 34, a management consultant, decided to extend their happy family. ‘It was a huge deal because I’d had devastating post-natal depression after our daughter Charlotte’s birth two years earlier and had even contemplated suicide,’ says Maiher.
But painful urine infections had been plaguing her. Suspecting an ovarian cyst, her GP booked her in for an urgent scan.
Maiher, who was plagued with painful urine infections, had been suspecting an ovarian cyst when a mass was found on her pelvis. Pictured: Maiher (left) and Stephanie during surrogacy
‘They found a mass on my pelvis, this 6cm ball, and the doctors said it must be removed immediately or I’d risk haemorrhaging.’
She was referred to St Mary’s Hospital in Central London, where a specialist diagnosed cancer of the appendix. This was when Maiher opted for the most radical surgery offered to stop the cancer in its tracks.
Stephanie, full-time mum to Amelia-Rose, ten, and seven-year-old Henry, recalls: ‘When Maiher told me she had cancer and said the precautionary surgery would involve removing her reproductive organs, I offered to carry a baby for her without a second’s thought.
‘We’re soul mates. We understand each other. Since we met when we were at sixth-form college we’ve been through all life’s ups and downs together. I had to help her.’
Meanwhile Maiher knew there was no time to lose. She went ahead with the harvesting of her eggs — and six days later was in the operating theatre. ‘By then I had swollen ovaries as well as the tumour. The pain was so bad I felt I was being snapped in two.
‘During the surgery they took out the right side of my colon, ovaries, fallopian tubes, womb, cervix and bladder . . . They told me they’d not been able to save my bladder and I’d now need a bag.
‘But my overwhelming feeling was absolute relief: the cancer had been taken out of me.’
Small wonder, as she recovered, Maiher was so preoccupied she gave little thought to taking up Stephanie’s offer. But her friend was there with solace: ‘You’ve got a baby to look forward to. Let’s get you better.’
But before they could formulate any plans, in February 2019 Maiher developed life-threatening sepsis. ‘My head felt as if it was going to explode, my heart was fluttering. Every minute counted. I was blue-lighted to hospital again.’
While there, yet more devastating news came: scans revealed that the cancer had spread to her pelvic lymph nodes. ‘So I had to go through surgery all over again. I was opened up in exactly the same place.
Stephanie said her husband initially had misgivings about her being a surrogate because she had complications with their children. Pictured: Stephanie after giving birth
‘But I picked myself up. I thought, “I’ve been through this once. I can do it again.”’ That she survived and today, at home in Paddock Wood, Kent, can even laugh about the chain of catastrophic events that would have floored a less optimistic soul, is testament to her courage, resilience and humour.
‘People say I’m cheerful, but what’s the alternative? I want to live. Life is wonderful,’ she says.
Even though there was more chemo to come — to ensure the cancer was dispatched — she endured it without complaint. By October she was confident, after a couple of clear scans, to broach the subject of those frozen embryos with her best friend.
Stephanie says: ‘I hadn’t told my husband about my offer to Maiher — and when I asked if he’d agree, initially he had misgivings. I’d had complications and two C-sections with our children and he didn’t want anything to happen to me. He said: “We need to do some more research before we embark on this.” ’
Meanwhile Maiher was anxious not to add to the pressure of their decision. ‘I said, “If you decide not to go ahead there will be absolutely no hard feelings”, and Steph just smiled and nodded.’
They conferred about the next step. This was when, with James and Daniel, a property developer, they all agreed to attend a conference with not-for-profit organisation Surrogacy UK. ‘Listening to the stories of so many couples there who desperately wanted children moved us all. Then we all had dinner together and Daniel said: “I’m on board,” ’ recalls Maiher.
Maiher said she reassured Stephanie that she could change her mind right until the last moment. Pictured: The friends on holiday aged 23
‘We were long-term friends and in a position to help,’ adds Stephanie. ‘I just looked at it as a rather extreme form of babysitting.’
There were, of course, legal and logistical matters to consider. ‘What if I died? What if the very worst happened and James died, too?’ says Maiher.
They drew up wills, making financial provision for Charlotte and the baby should the worst happen. Then, by last July, they were set to go: Stephanie was ready to have her friend’s embryo implanted.
‘I was so excited I felt I was on another planet,’ remembers Maiher. ‘But I tried to rein myself in. Right until the last moment I was saying to Stephanie: “If you change your mind it won’t be an issue.” And she just said: “Will you shut up?” ’
Despite the constraints of Covid, Maiher was permitted to be with her friend while the procedure took place at a private fertility clinic.
Right from the start, Stephanie was convinced that the first attempt would be successful. Her optimism was confirmed by a series of positive home pregnancy tests.
‘We had a baby-grow made and we rolled all the tests up into it,’ she remembers. ‘We decided Daniel was going to give it to Maiher and James. So we invited them to dinner and afterwards Daniel presented them with a parcel.’
Stephanie said she broke down in tears when Maiher told her that the cancer had come back, when she was ten weeks pregnant. Pictured: Stephanie and Maiher
‘I felt like the luckiest woman on Earth,’ recalls Maiher, teary again at the memory. ‘I’d beaten cancer twice and now I had a baby on the way! But I had to remind myself, “It’s still early days.” I’d had a miscarriage myself, before Charlotte, and we were all really nervous.’
And there were more moments of heart-stopping anxiety in the months that followed. ‘When I was ten weeks pregnant Maiher texted me: “Unfortunately the cancer has come back,” ’ Stephanie says. Scans revealed the awful news.
‘I just broke down in tears. Maiher told me the doctors were confident they could treat it, but she asked me if I still wanted to continue with the pregnancy.
‘I said, “There’s no question I’ll carry on. I can’t terminate this pregnancy. You just focus on getting yourself well and I’ll focus on growing the baby.” ’
And so she did. The two women formed a Covid bubble to spend as much time together in the coming months, and Maiher endured a fresh round of chemo that proved ‘more brutal and horrific’ than ever.
But now there were also hopeful scans to enjoy — the ones that revealed the baby’s growth — and both friends attended together.
They agreed, too, that they wanted to know the baby’s sex but asked the radiologist to seal it in an envelope at the 20-week scan, so it would be a surprise until the great ‘reveal’.
Maiher said she’s always been very positive, but when the cancer came back for a third time it really hit her. Pictured left to right: James, Daniel, Maiher and Stephanie
Daniel was entrusted with the secret — the baby was a boy! — and filled balloons with blue confetti which they popped at a party at his and Stephanie’s home in Redhill, Surrey.
‘Maiher and James were ecstatic, thrilled that they were going to have one of each,’ says Stephanie.
And she says she felt absolutely no attachment to the baby growing inside her: ‘I had no maternal feelings at all. I was just looking after my friend’s baby for nine months.’
It is hard to imagine the mix of euphoria and fear that marked the remaining months. Stephanie’s blood pressure began to rise and doctors were concerned it was the start of pre-eclampsia.
She was kept in hospital for observation and the decision was made to deliver the baby five days before her elective caesarean.
Meanwhile Maiher had learnt that her last batch of chemotherapy had not worked. It was another body blow. This time she needed radiotherapy to shrink the tumours. She steeled herself for five weeks of intensive treatment.
‘I’ve always been very positive’, she says, ‘but when the cancer came back for a third time that really hit me. I thought, “Wow, this is getting serious.” I had the conversation with James. Would he be raising our baby on his own?’
Maiher said she burst into tears when Alex was born on April 7 weighing 7lb 6oz. Pictured: The friends during surrogacy
She’d had her first session of treatment and was about to set off for her second when the call came from Stephanie: ‘The baby’s coming today!’
‘And oh my God, I was so nervous and excited’, recalls Maiher.
‘Charlotte went to my mum’s and James and I shot up the motorway. It was 50 minutes to East Surrey Hospital in Redhill; we dashed there.
‘I was allowed to be with Stephanie and Daniel when the baby was delivered by a surgical team comprised entirely of women. I heard a little gurgle and thought, “I think that’s the baby”, then the surgeon lifted him up and said, “Ta-da!”
‘I just burst into tears. I was numb. He’d arrived and he was so scrummy, perfect; like a porcelain doll with the most gorgeous dark hair, and the image of his big sister,’ recalls Maiher. ‘And as I held him skin-to-skin, my little wriggling, crying boy, I thought all the pain was worth it. I would have gone through it all again in a heartbeat to have our son.’
Alex was born on April 7 weighing 7lb 6oz, and watching her best friend’s joy, Stephanie’s main feeling was ‘overwhelming relief’.
In her understated way, Stephanie is quietly delighted to have helped Maiher, ‘not only one of the bravest and strongest women I know, but also one of the kindest and most generous’.
Maiher, who is awaiting another operation, said she will never be able to repay Stephanie for what she has done. Pictured: Maiher and James with their children
But what of the inestimable gift she’s given to Maiher? On this, Stephanie is modest. ‘When people say it’s an amazing thing to have done I’m very British about it. I don’t know how to take a compliment. To me, it’s just a normal thing to do for a best friend.’
Maiher takes a different view: ‘I will never be able to repay Steph for what she’s done. When Alex was born I could only say, “Thank you” and she smiled and said, “You’re welcome.”
‘Daniel said, “It was nothing.” Then Steph laughed and said, “It definitely wasn’t nothing!” ’ Stephanie points out, too, that she couldn’t have gone through the pregnancy without her husband’s ‘support, care and guidance’.
So to today. Little Alex, now four months old, continues to thrive, as does the enduring friendship between Maiher and Stephanie.
‘We’re like an extended family: Steph is “auntie” to my children and her children are like special cousins to mine.’
Maiher’s course of radiotherapy has ended and there has been some shrinking of her tumours but she awaits another operation to remove the more obdurate ones. But she’s confident she’ll have the cancer licked.
‘There’s no reason why I won’t beat the cancer,’ Maiher says.
‘And when I look at Alex I feel I’ve won life’s lottery. I’m the luckiest person alive. And of course, above all, I have Stephanie’s friendship — and she’s the most selfless person imaginable.’
Maiher said having Alex feels like she’s the luckiest person alive and describes Stephanie as the ‘most selfless person imaginable’
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