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Cervical cancer survivor Ginny Marable heard about a story of a fellow cervical cancer survivor, Tamika Felder, not being able to preserve her fertility. The story moved Marable so much that she and her husband donated their embryos to Felder.
Tamika Felder was living her best life in 2001 working as a TV producer and host in Washington, D.C., until news of a cancer diagnosis turned her life upside down.
At the time, the then 25-year-old had been putting off getting a Pap smear for a few years due to a lack of insurance. Then, she said, her primary physician strongly recommended she get a Pap smear. After the results came back abnormal, Felder was referred to see a specialist at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
There, she was diagnosed with stage 2 cervical cancer and informed she needed a hysterectomy (a process in which the uterus, cervix, and fallopian tubes are removed). Of note, a hysterectomy causes a woman to lose their fertility.
Fertility loss is a common side effect of cervical cancer treatment, and oftentimes patients are informed of certain fertility-preservation options. However, this is not always the case for every patient and some options are rarely discussed.
Felder recalled that her doctor asked her if she wanted to have children in the future and started detailing the IVF process (a process where an egg is combined with sperm outside of the body and then transferred to a uterus). She was also informed about egg freezing (a process where eggs are removed and preserved outside the body).
According to Felder, her insurance would not cover IVF because she was not married and not actively trying to have children. After unsuccessfully fighting the insurance company, Felder decided to have the hysterectomy.
“On June 14, 2001, I lost everything that I thought that made me a woman, I thought I lost all my chances of ever being a mom,” she said in an interview with CURE®.
After the surgery, Felder tried to return to her old life, but said she found it hard to adjust. She explained that she “felt alone (and) was pissed off.”
Then in 2005, Felder founded a support group for patients with cervical cancer, Tamika and Friends (later rebranded to Cervivor). She said she did not want anyone else to feel as isolated as she had and hoped to educate others on HPV, fertility and cervical cancer.
Felder even testified before the Maryland state congress about the need to expand insurance policies to cover patients with cervical cancer who were at risk of losing their fertility. After the law was changed, Felder explained, “it was bittersweet.” She said that although she had helped other patients with cancer preserve their fertility, it would “never be her story.”
In 2017, 16 years after Felder was diagnosed, Ginny Marable began a similar cancer journey with one important difference.
Marable, who now lives in Portland, Oregon, was diagnosed with stage 2b cervical cancer at the age of 30. Marable brought her then-boyfriend Sean to meetings with the oncologist as a source of support. At those meetings, her doctor informed her that it was likely that she would lose her fertility and recommended undergoing IVF before her hysterectomy. After learning her insurance would cover most of the process, Marable started IVF the very next day and decided to take her mature eggs and use Sean’s sperm to fertilize them.
Marable noted that the process “happened really fast,” explaining that she was diagnosed on April 3, had her eggs retrieved on April 17 and her surgery was scheduled for May 10. By the time the process was over, she was left with five high-quality viable embryos (during pregnancy, an embryo develops into a fetus). Hoping to discover more resources and solidarity, Marable explained she did a quick Google search for support groups for cervical cancer survivors and discovered Cervivor where she started following Felder's journey.
But then in April 2020, Marable explained that she began to feel overwhelmed. She and Sean were going through the surrogacy process (a process where one couple’s embryo is implanted in another person who carries the baby for the couple) and were embarking on their journey to parenthood. Seeking more support, Marable started becoming more involved in Cervivor, attending their virtual community connection events where she met Felder. Their connection led to an immediate friendship.
In September 2020, Marable and Sean received news that the embryo they had implanted in a surrogate had split and that they were expecting twin boys. Ginny & Sean had always wanted multiple children and felt that with the arrival of the twins, their family was complete. However, they had four remaining healthy embryos that they wanted to donate to another family in need.
After hearing Felder share her story about losing her fertility at a virtual Cervivor event, Marable said she was moved to do something.
“(Felder’s) experience with cervical cancer was very similar to mine, except for not having that option of preserving her fertility,” she said in an interview with CURE®. “I couldn't imagine not having that choice. That really spoke to me.”
After the event, Marable spoke with Sean and decided to offer their remaining embryos to Felder and her husband Rocky Campbell.
Marable called Felder in April 2021 and offered her the embryos. Felder said she was speechless.
“I cried so much,” Felder recalled. “I apologized but I had to get off the phone with her. Because I can literally count the times in my life that I have been speechless or so emotional that I couldn’t get the words out. And this (was) definitely in the top five.”
Up until that point, Felder said she had been watching other women in her life experience motherhood and while she was incredibly happy for them, she still carried a twinge of pain that she would never be able to experience that journey herself.
Marable, according to Felder, mended that pain.
After the transfer of the embryos, Felder and Campbell started the surrogacy process this year and are now expecting a baby boy in November.
Throughout this entire process, Felder and Marable have continued to play a big part in each other’s lives. In fact, Felder said that Marable is, “her biggest supporter and champion” and that Marable is constantly providing Felder with emotional support and parenting tips.
In July, the two families spent the weekend together in Portland, Oregon. Felder described that meeting Marable in person “was just beautiful” and that watching their husbands connect cemented her belief that “this is our own version of a modern family.”
As for Marable, she explained that the meeting reaffirmed her reasons for the embryo donation and that watching Felder and Campbell interact made her realize that “(their) child is going to be so loved, and have supportive, inspiring parents.”
Marable and Felder explained that they would consider their children to be cousins and that they hope to always be in each other’s lives. And for Marable, she said that she hopes this story of two cervical cancer survivors separated by more than a decade of diagnosis and thousands of miles will inspire others to be kind.
“This sort of went to an extreme level, but I just hope this inspires an act of kindness from someone because we all need more kindness,” she concluded.
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