Teacher launches online appeal to find a surrogate after bowel cancer at 29 destroyed her womb.
Olivia created a poignant video to try to find a stranger who would be willing to carry their baby.
A primary school teacher whose womb was shrivelled by radiation, has taken the unusual step of launching an online appeal for a surrogate – after treatment for bowel cancer at 29 left her unable to carry a baby.
After two years of debilitating symptoms, Olivia Rowlands, now 29, was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2017 and needed targeted radiotherapy, which would destroy her womb and kill her chances of being pregnant, in order to save her life.
Olivia and her 29-year-old gym owner husband Sam’s joy at creating four embryos from the eggs she had harvested prior to treatment turned sour, when they couple, of St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, discovered the huge waiting list for surrogates.
Desperate to become parents, the couple – who met as students at Bath University – have launched an online appeal, including a heartbreaking slideshow of their story, hoping to find a kind-hearted stranger willing to be their surrogate.
Olivia – given the all clear in August, after eight months of treatment, including radiotherapy, chemo and surgery to remove the tumour – said: “I know I want to have a child as soon as I can.
“I joined Surrogacy UK, but the waiting list for a surrogate is long – we would probably have to wait for at least a year – and most surrogates and parents are matched at socials.”
She continued: “Being in Scotland, it’s quite hard for me to get to any, as they are in the south of England. I decided to try some of the online surrogacy groups and created a video to tell our story.”
Olivia’s problems began in 2015 when, after experiencing tummy trouble, she was diagnosed with a variety of problems, including irritable bowel syndrome and severe period pains.
But when the pain intensified at the start of 2017, she actually asked her doctor if it could be bowel cancer.
She said: “The doctor told me not to worry, because it usually happens to people over 50. The pain I was getting was so severe I couldn’t move and I was constantly having either constipation or diarrhoea. I was also seeing blood in my stools and I lost nearly two stone.
“It came to a head when I started getting the pain during a doctor’s appointment in late October, and she realised just how bad it was. She told me that my husband needed to drive me to Ninewells hospital for examination.”
Referred to a specialist a few weeks later, doctors told Olivia had inflamatory bowel disease and she was then referred for a colonoscopy.
On December 13, Olivia had the procedure – when a camera is used to examine the lining of the large bowel – at Fernbrae hospital, Dundee.
“They told me the procedure would take about 40 minutes, but they stopped after about five,” she said. “I was pleased that it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected.
“But afterwards, the consultant took me into a room and said they had found something. It took me a good few minutes to realise they meant cancer.”
She added: “They’d found a tumour in my bowel and weren’t able to get past it to go any further.”
Six days later, with her mum, Margaret Baxter, who had been living in Dubai with her dad, Colin, back in Scotland and by her side, she was rushed to hospital.
After a sudden deterioration, she was diagnosed with sepsis – a potentially deadly complication of an infection – which doctors believe developed because of the colonoscopy.
With her cancer treatment put on hold, as she would need to be treated for and to recover from the infection, she was taken for emergency surgery to drain out the infection, because of the sepsis – coming to with a colostomy bag, which she was told would be permanent.
Also told the tumour in her bowel was too big to remove, she needed radiotherapy and chemo to shrink it before surgery. As it had grown so close to her womb, the targeted radiotherapy would damage it, meaning she could not carry a baby.
Olivia continued: “We desperately wanted a child. We had been trying for eight months before I was diagnosed – although, looking back now, I’m glad I didn’t fall pregnant, because I had cancer and treatment would have harmed the baby.”
She added: “Still, being told that saving my life would mean I might never have children was very hard. The doctors told me they could harvest my eggs, but they couldn’t save my womb and I would never be able to carry a child myself,” Olivia added.
After spending Christmas recovering in hospital, Olivia had 10 eggs harvested and the couple created four embryos.
She then started five weeks of radiotherapy and chemotherapy tablets, but on day four she started to feel worse and was taken back into hospital, where she discovered the sepsis had returned.
She said: “I was so upset at that stage. The doctors told me the treatment would have to stop and they would have to rethink what to do.
“They needed my body to fight the sepsis and I had to take a course of antibiotics. It was too risky to continue treatment.”
Her consultant advised Olivia that although her tumour was large, they would try to remove some of it through surgery and could possibly fix her colostomy at the same time.
Olivia added: “It was a very complicated operation and we weren’t sure if it would be possible but, amazingly, after nine hours in surgery, I woke up and the doctors told me they had removed the entire tumour and reversed my colostomy to a temporary ileostomy. I was so delighted.”
After that, she faced six gruelling weeks of chemotherapy, followed by five weeks of radiotherapy and a second six-week course of chemo to remove any remaining cancer cells.
“Finishing chemo was very emotional,” she said. “I filmed the moment and I was just overcome with tears.”
She continued: “I was so glad it was over, but quite sad that I wasn’t going to see the amazing staff at Ninewells every day. They have been so incredible. I can’t thank them enough for everything they have done for me.”
Told she was cancer free a month ago, Olivia also learned that doctors had spotted a small blood clot in her lung.
Now on medication to disperse the clot, they are hoping to reverse her temporary ileostomy in the next few months.
“It’s been a very hard year, but I am so glad to have come out the other side,” said Olivia.
“I am so thankful to the NHS for treating me so well, but also to my parents, especially my mum, who came for a few days last December and ended up staying for eight months.
“My husband Sam has been by my side every step of the way, making me laugh and helping me when I struggled.”
She added: “One of the things that’s really helped me is talking about my journey through my blog and Instagram page ‘Olivia’s got guts’. I hope that it will help someone else going through this.”
Now, the couple’s thoughts have turned back to finding a surrogate and having a family.
She said: “I hope there is a stranger out there who will connect with our story and give us the greatest gift. We just want a family together and we want to do that as soon as we can.”
She continued: “I’m also speaking out as part of Bowel Cancer UK’s ‘Never Too Young’ campaign, because I want everyone to realise that this disease doesn’t just happen to people over 50.
“I’m on the front cover of a book produced by the charity, called ‘Younger people with bowel cancer: a guide for the under 50s.’
“It provides an introduction to how a diagnosis of bowel cancer at a younger age can affect the body, emotions, relationships and everyday life.”
Olivia added: “I am one of the lucky people, who was diagnosed in time. Now I’m looking forward to a positive future and finding a surrogate to have our baby would really make my life complete.”