Real Life

'I'm fighting to be a mum!': menopausal at 23

After brutal cancer treatment, Kate’s dream of becoming
a mother was crushed, but now hope is on the horizon

By India Hendrikse
Not many of us would say we're fortunate for physical pain, but for Kate Sherriff, the agony of operation after operation signifies the hope she may one day have her own child.
"I'm lucky to experience this pain," the Gisborne-raised health coach, 32, tells Woman's Day. "The whole reason I'm having surgery is because of the possibility I've been given to have kids. I'm just so grateful."
Her story starts 10 years ago, when Kate, then just 23, arrived in Sydney, keen to start afresh after a few years working on superyachts. That same week, she noticed irregular vaginal bleeding and felt intense pelvic pressure each time she went to the toilet.
Not knowing that her carefree lifestyle was about to take a turn, she saw a doctor, who found so many growths that Kate's cervix wasn't even visible in an X-ray. She was booked in for an operation two days later and her mother flew out from New Zealand to be with her.
Kate's rare cancer put her life in jeopardy twice, resulting in a hysterectomy and rounds of chemo. "I didn't see my future."
Speaking through tears, the keen surfer remembers, "The specialist called after my surgery and said I had a rare cancer. I turned to my mum and just fell to the floor."
The pair returned to Aotearoa hoping to start treatment immediately, but Kate arrived at the hospital to more bad news – her cancer was so rare that it was too unfamiliar to the specialists, who asked her to wait a month until they worked out a plan.
A concerned Kate called her Sydney specialist and they confirmed the worst – she wouldn't be alive in a month. So despite the costly medical fees, she flew back to Australia to start treatment.
"I refused to give up and so did my family," Kate shares, her eyes welling up. "Within a day of starting chemotherapy in Sydney, I lost all of my hair, including my eyelashes and my eyebrows. That's when I knew it was real. Until that point, I was still pretending I was OK."
As chemotherapy can cause infertility, doctors usually give female patients the option to wait for another menstrual cycle so their eggs can be harvested and frozen, which gives them a chance to have a baby in the future. But Kate's cancer was so aggressive, there was no waiting around.
"Instead, they took a slice of my ovarian tissue to put on ice, telling me that follicles in the tissue might turn into eggs if I had a tissue transplant down the track," Kate recalls.
Heartbreakingly, the first round of chemotherapy didn't work. To save her life, the next option was a hysterectomy. At just 23, Kate entered menopause.
At the time, the brutal reality she could never carry her own baby didn't sink in. "When I had the hysterectomy and was going through chemotherapy, I didn't really think about how I wasn't going to be able to have a kid because my mind was on survival," admits Kate. "I was living day by day and didn't see my future."
After her hysterectomy, the cancer made a harrowing comeback a few years later, but Kate recovered and eventually settled in Mount Maunganui. She trained to be a health and nutrition coach, and started the business The September Project, which focuses on preventative healthcare through lifestyle choices.
Waking at 5.30am every day to exercise, journal and take supplements, Kate finally felt like she was enjoying a life that wasn't dictated by cancer. But when she went to see a fertility specialist, she was told that because she was in menopause, there was no way she could have a biological child.
Typically, Kate came out fighting. She tells, "I simply said to them, 'No, you don't understand. I was born to be a mum. I don't know how it will work, but I will be a mum.'
"I can't imagine a life without it. I know it's not for everyone, but it's who I am. I'll keep going until I become a mum."
Doing her own research, Kate started looking into getting her ovarian tissue back from Australia with the view to having her eggs harvested, undergoing IVF and having the embryo implanted in a surrogate, but it was here her dream to become a mother hit another roadblock.
Despite being accepted overseas, ovarian tissue transplants aren't yet legal in New Zealand. The barrier meant uplifting her newly joyful life in the Bay of Plenty for multiple trips back to Australia, but it paid off.
Once a surgeon inserted the tissue into her pelvis, a remarkable thing happened – after being in menopause for most of her twenties, her body started producing a menstrual cycle, which meant she was able to start IVF.
Her egg retrieval will stay in Kate's mind forever, she says. "I remember waking up from surgery, wondering if any eggs were retrieved. All the nurses were crying and I started crying, thinking it didn't work. Then a lady said, 'We have an egg!' and everyone started clapping.
"It was a miracle. Here I was, going from menopause and being told I'd never have my own kid, to waking up and having an egg. I know one egg sounds silly because people often get around 20 in retrieval, but it gave me hope. It was the first time in so long that I could visualise myself with a baby – and I want one so badly."
From there, Kate had another eight egg-retrieval operations within just nine months. "It might sound like I've been through so much, but really I've been so lucky," she smiles. "The odds have always been against me, but I've managed to get through and it's worked out."
While the ovarian tissue will eventually die, there's another slice of it on ice and the goal is to get as many eggs retrieved as possible so that means when Kate meets Mr Right, the eggs are there for her and she can look into surrogacy.
The scan shows ovarian tissue transplanted into Kate's pelvis was working and follicles had started producing eggs.
But therein lies another dilemma. Surrogacy laws in Aotearoa require a biological mother to adopt her child from the surrogate and don't allow the exchange of money, so the surrogate must be a volunteer.
This legal rigmarole has motivated Kate to look at other options, so she's recently joined up as a candidate in a uterus-transplant trial in Sydney.
While uterus transplants have been performed elsewhere in the world, it would be a first in Australia.
In the meantime, Kate's determined to keep fighting for people who are going through a similar journey. "If they didn't take that tissue from me when I was 23, I'd never be able to have my own biological child," she says. "But there are young girls going through chemo in New Zealand who aren't being offered to have their ovarian tissue reserved. It's so unfair we're so far behind the rest of the world. People go through enough with cancer – they shouldn't have to deal with this too."
And perhaps they won't much longer. Using her signature determination, Kate is turning her frustration into advocacy.
"Hopefully, I'll become the person who will make ovarian tissue transplant possible for others as well," she declares. "I think all of this has happened to me because I was meant to change the way things are in New Zealand. I'm not going to stop."

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