A cancer diagnosis is hard enough. Lisa Ackermann’s came with an added gut punch: a type of breast cancer that made her dream of having a child flat-out dangerous.
Then came an unforgettable conversation.
Ackermann’s sister, Lauren Mozer, volunteered to carry her child as a surrogate.
“I was like, ‘You know what? I can do something to help her,’” Mozer said. “I’ve been blessed to have two healthy pregnancies with healthy deliveries. Just seeing her going through all her struggles, it’s something I wanted to do.”
From their days growing up together in Brick, the sisters always enjoyed a close relationship. This, however, was next-level kinship. Mozer gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Madison, last July. Today marks an extra special Mother’s Day for everyone involved.
“I feel so incredibly grateful that my sister was able to do this for me and my husband,” Ackermann said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to put into words just how grateful I am. She has given me the best gift that anyone could ever give.”
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‘It just seemed so impossible’
The 38-year-old Ackermann, who still lives in Brick, was 34 when diagnosed. Like most breast cancers, hers was hormone-receptive, which means pregnancy could make it more aggressive.
Even in patients who are in remission, pregnancy increases the risk of a relapse, explained Dr. Darlene Morgan, Ackermann’s obstetrician/gynecologist affiliated with Ocean University Medical Center in Brick.
Eight rounds of cancer treatment and four surgeries tested Ackermann’s resolve.
“My breast cancer journey was such an emotional roller coaster, so there were definitely moments where I had almost given up hope of becoming a mother,” Ackermann said. “It just seemed so impossible at the time. ‘Too many roadblocks,’ I thought to myself, ‘maybe it’s just not meant to be.’ But deep down I knew that it was.’”
As she went into remission, Ackermann and her husband, Chris, explored the options. It became clear: The safest route was taking Mozer up on her offer.
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Morgan sat down with everyone to make sure they understood the gravity of the process ahead.
“To me, it was over and above anything I would expect of people,” Morgan said. “I would tell Lauren every time she came in, you are in the top 0.1% of selfless people in the world.”
Mozer’s husband, Ted, and their daughters, Cali and Alaina (now ages 9 and 7, respectively), were on board. Kids are naturally open-minded; the girls didn’t think anything of it.
“They were like, ‘That’s great. … What’s for snacks?’” Lauren said.
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A COVID curveball
“We were all set to go, and COVID happened,” said Mozer, now 40, who lives in Point Pleasant. “In the beginning of COVID I thought, ‘You know, do I want to be pregnant with this crazy disease going around? Is that going to put the baby at risk?’ We held off a while longer and finally it seemed like COVID was not going away, ever.”
So they forged ahead. After one failed transplantation, a second attempt succeeded in November 2020. On July 9, 2021, Madison was born at Ocean University Medical Center.
At the time, the hospital was allowing just one guest to accompany mothers during childbirth. This being an unusual case, Morgan arranged for Lisa and Lauren’s husband to be at the bedside and for Lisa’s husband to be in the partitioned room.
“We wanted to make sure they would all feel a part of the birth, which is extremely important,” Morgan said. “It’s a special moment that only comes once.”
A principal challenge for surrogates is handing over a baby you carried for nine months to someone else. That can be traumatic.
“I worried like anyone would worry: How am I going to handle this emotionally?” Mozer said. “But it was so much better than I anticipated. I felt so happy. Seeing (Lisa) hold her, I was so happy I was able to do it.”
It helps, of course, that Madison remains in Mozer’s life as a niece.
“She’s the happiest little baby,” Mozer said. “I feel like I will always have a special bond with her.”
‘Proof that miracles can happen’
Ten months into motherhood, Ackermann remains in remission.
“Being a mom is all I ever dreamed it would be, and more,” she said. “I love every single minute of it. As difficult as my path was, I wouldn’t trade it for the world, because it has led me to Madison. And that’s exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
Ackermann has advice for people navigating surrogate childbirth.
“Just keep your focus on the end goal,” she said. “It’s a lengthy and complicated process that seems to be never-ending at times, but you can’t let that get to you.”
This Mother’s Day, she’ll take time to reflect on a few things.
“On just how far I’ve come, how lucky I am to be a survivor, and how lucky I am to be surrounded by so much love and support,’ she said. “My daughter is proof that miracles can happen, and every single time I look at her I am reminded of just that.”
Eventually, Madison will know the story.
“As soon as she is old enough to understand, we plan on telling her exactly how she was brought into this world,” Ackermann said. “It’s so special and amazing … and the best example of love and how family should be.”
That example, Mozer hopes, will guide her own daughters throughout their lives.
“I hope it shows them this is what you do for someone you love, for your sister,” she said.
As they went through the surrogate process, the Mozers did their best to keep it private because of the uncertainty involved and, let’s face it, this is an intensely personal matter.
Now, though, they feel there’s an important message to share — for cancer patients, for those dealing with infertility, for anyone facing a life struggle.
“People might think there’s no hope,” Mozer said. “There is hope.”
Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at [email protected]
Source: Asbury Park