When Sarrah Strimel Bentley was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 38, she was devastated for herself, but also by the prospect that she may never be able to start her own family following the grueling treatment.
BY ALYCE COLLINS ON 8/3/23 AT 6:30 AM EDT Newsweek — In September 2020, Strimel Bentley, from New York, was diagnosed with stage two hormone receptor positive breast cancer at the age of 38, following the discovery of a lump in her breast. At the time, she thought she was "perfectly healthy," telling Newsweek that "it seemed to have come out of nowhere."
She said: "I had no family history and was only 38, younger than the recommended age to get mammograms. It was very difficult to advocate for an ultrasound because of Covid, so I had to call a friend to get me into a private practice."
"They said that test saved my life, as my cancer was extremely aggressive. If I'd have waited for the ultrasound any longer, it most likely would've spread."
Breast cancer is believed to be the most common cancer in women across the U.S., and it's also the second-leading cause of cancer deaths among women. According to figures by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are approximately 264,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer each year, and 2,400 men.
The treatment for breast cancer varies, depending on the severity and the type of breast cancer, but it can involve surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and radiation treatment. Unfortunately, as explained by the American Cancer Society, some options cause infertility because the reproductive organs are removed, such as in a hysterectomy or oophorectomy.
It's often recommended that individuals freeze their eggs or embryos ahead of starting treatment, so they can preserve their fertility.
Strimel Bentley, now 41, had to endure a double mastectomy, eight rounds of chemotherapy, 28 rounds of radiation, two reconstructive surgeries, and an oophorectomy. But before beginning her lengthy treatment, she and her then-boyfriend, James, had to make an urgent decision regarding their future family.
"James was my boyfriend of nine months at the time, and three days after I got the call to say I had cancer, we were sitting in an IVF office so I could preserve my fertility before chemotherapy, which often renders you infertile.
"The doctor asked if we wanted to freeze embryos as it had a higher success rate than just eggs alone. I looked at James, terrified, and he said embryos – he wasn't going anywhere.
"When I met James, I knew he would be the father of my children and we would lay on his apartment floor and talk about what our kids would be like. Our daughter would have wild curly hair like me and wear rock tees, and our son would be a red head like James and much more reserved. We allowed ourselves to dream, and we never saw cancer coming."
The couple were only able to freeze one embryo before treatment, but Strimel Bentley remained hopeful that her dream of becoming a mom would come true one day.
'Freezing Embryos Is Ideally Offered to Every Patient'
Breast cancer surgeon Dr. Anne Peled has helped many women get through their diagnosis and find the best treatment for them. At the age of 37, Dr. Peled herself was diagnosed with breast cancer, which gives her a special perspective as a medical professional and a survivor.
She told Newsweek: "Hormone receptor positive breast cancer is the most common type, and it means that the breast cancer cells express receptors for estrogen or progesterone, and that these hormones impact the growth of the tumor.
"Treatment of this type of cancer, particularly when it occurs in younger women, usually includes chemotherapy, surgery to remove the cancer either through lumpectomy or mastectomy, as well as axillary lymph node removal. Radiation therapy can be done to the breast and lymph node area, and hormone suppression either with monthly injections and a pill to suppress hormone levels, or with removal of the ovaries."
Due to the effects of the treatment, Dr. Peled adds that "freezing embryos before women start treatment is ideally offered to every patient" who wants to have a family.
'I Held on to the Fact That Miracles Happen Every Day'
After her shock cancer diagnosis, Strimel Bentley was even more dismayed to learn that she wouldn't be able to carry her frozen embryo, making her feel as though her dream was slipping even further away.
Throughout her treatment, Strimel Bentley, who is now in remission, kept her sights set on her future family, and she began looking at surrogate agencies instead.
"Learning that my treatment would affect my fertility and that I wouldn't be able to carry our frozen embryo was the most heartbreaking part of all of it," Strimel Bentley continued. "I lost all my hair, had massive bone pain from chemotherapy medications, but never lost my positivity or joy for the life I was living during cancer.
"Losing my breasts, hair, and ovaries was nothing compared to losing the chance to have babies with the love of my life.
"We had a 20 percent chance this embryo would make it to pregnancy, and I prayed every day that he would come. I wore jewelry with his name on it, talked to him in one particular place in the sky every night at sunset, and I held on to the fact that miracles happen every day and I would have mine too."
After months of searching, the couple finally met with Whitney Washington in November 2022, and they knew straight away that she was the perfect candidate to carry their embryo. However, the wait went on and it wasn't until April 2023 that the embryo was transferred.
It was a tense week as they waited to find out if it had been successful, but in a video posted on her TikTok account (@sarrahstrimelbentley), the former Broadway performer revealed the tearful moment she found out it had worked.
"After meeting Whitney, seeing her infectious smile, and feeling her positive, grounded spirit, we just knew she was the angel that would carry our precious baby boy for us. Our embryo transfer was on April 10, and we got the call to say that the test was positive on April 19. We're so excited to be having a boy, due in December 2023.
"I was really nervous that there would be backlash, as surrogacy can be a triggering subject for people. But it was overwhelmingly supportive. A whole world of people were crying right along with us.
"Any time someone said something negative (and there were very few), our new army of aunties and uncles stepped up and shut the negativity down. At the end of the day, I shared an intimate moment with the world to raise awareness for breast cancer, infertility, and surrogacy.
"It is my mission and my path to educate and make other families who are experiencing fertility struggles to feel less alone. I want them to see this video and remember that miracles do happen."
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