A woman has revealed how her sister has offered to carry her husband’s baby to help make him a father before he dies.
Jennifer, 37, and Jonny McMillan, from Belfast, are desperate to have a child together and have been trying to conceive for nine years.
Jonny, 38, has been battling ependymoma, a rare cancer which forms on the brain and spinal cord, and earlier this year he was told that he cannot be cured.
But becoming a father remains at the top of his bucket list, and so Jennifer’s sister Christina Beattie, 40, has offered to be a surrogate for the couple to give them a greater chance of success.
Yet with the fertility treatment costing £6,000, the family have been fundraising to make Jonny’s last wish come true.
Jennifer, 37, and Jonny McMillan (pictured together), from Belfast, are desperate to have a child together and have been trying to conceive for nine years
Jennifer’s big sister Christina Beattie (pictured right, with her sibling), 40, has offered to be a surrogate for the couple to give them a greater chance of success
‘Jonny refuses to ask how much time he’s got left; but we know the clock is ticking,’ explains Jennifer, 37, who got together with Jonny ten years ago.
‘If we want Jonny to be at the birth of his child, to change nappies, get up for night feeds and push a swing in the park, then every day counts.
‘I desperately want to give him chance to be a daddy before he dies. It’ll be his lasting legacy.’
Jennifer already has a son, Jay, from a previous relationship, who was just four at the time the couple met, and Jonny soon became a father figure to him.
Jonny (pictured with Jennifer, left, in 2011, and right, in 2015), 38, has been battling ependymoma, a rare cancer which forms on the brain and spinal cord, and earlier this year he was told that he cannot be cured
Wanting to become a father remains at the top of Jonny’s Bucket List. Yet with the fertility treatment costing £6,000, the family have been fundraising to make Jonny’s last wish come true. Pictured: Jonny and Jennifer together
‘Jonny has always been a brilliant step-dad,’ she said. ‘He used to spend hours painstakingly building Lego sets – only for Jay to come along and smash them up!
‘One Christmas we bought Jay a bike, and Jonny took him straight to our local park to teach him how to ride it. As he got older they went on fishing trips together – although Jay always moaned about the lack of WiFi by the river!’
Jonny loved being a step-father but he’d always wanted kids of his own, so the couple began trying. They even had a cycle of IVF in 2012 but failed to fall pregnant.
WHAT IS AN EPENDYMOMAS?
An ependymoma is a tumour that forms when cells in the brain and spinal cord begin to rapidly multiply.
Ependymomas can happen at any age. When they occur in children they are usually found in the brain. In adults they are more commonly found in the spinal cord.
Treatment begins with surgery to remove as much of the tumour as possible, then radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or radiosurgery.
An ependymoma in the brain of a child can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, seizures, and an increasing head size due to fluid trapped in the skull.
Adults may experience a blind spot, some weakness or paralysis and changes in thinking and personality.
People with a spinal ependymoma can experience pain, difficulty in moving and even paralysis.
‘We were only entitled to one free cycle on the NHS and it was too pricey to have another go,’ Jennifer recalled.
Jonny added: ‘We decided to just keep trying and see what happened. I always say that if somethings meant for you, then it’ll come your way.’
But in 2014, shortly after they tied the knot and returned home from honeymooning in Egypt, Jonny began complaining of a severe headache at the base of his skull.
Jennifer explained: ‘He was a typical man, I was used to him complaining of man-flu every time he caught a sniffle. But this was something different.
‘Over the space of 13 weeks he went to our GP 27 times, but the doctors put it down to the stress and the excitement of our wedding, or a virus, doling out painkillers and even antidepressants.
‘Jonny was desperate for help. He even told me one day that he thought he’d got a brain tumour, but I told him not to be over dramatic. He was only 33.’
One Sunday in November 2014, Jonny became so poorly that Jennifer decided to take him to A&E at Belfast’s Ulster Hospital.
They were sitting on a trolley together, waiting for scan results, when a doctor came to talk to them.
‘I’ll never forget it,’ says Jennifer. ‘I almost fell off the trolley in shock. The doctor told us they’d found a large mass on Jonny’s brain, which they were pretty sure was a tumour.
Jennifer already has a son, Jay, from a previous relationship, who was just four at the time the couple met, and Jonny soon became a father figure to him. The pair pictured together at a firing range for Jay’s 14th birthday, left, and right, on holiday
Jennifer and Jonny with her sister Christina. ‘I told them I’d have their baby,’ the sibling said. ‘I didn’t hesitate; it just came out’
‘Jonny hardly batted an eyelid; he said he’d been expecting it. He’d been right all along.’
A week later Jonny underwent brain surgery to cut away the tumour and fit a shunt to relieve the pressure.
It turned out to be a rare type of cancer called an ependymoma, which affects the brain and spinal cord. The couple were warned there was a high chance of it returning.
So when Jonny began complaining of backache in March 2017, they weren’t surprised when medics found another tumour. Again he had surgery to remove it, followed by eight weeks of radiotherapy.
Jonny and Jennifer at their wedding in 2014. The loved-up pair first got together ten years ago
Jennifer and Jonny (pictured on holiday) were ‘blown away’ by Christina’s incredible gesture; asking her to think about it very carefully
‘The treatment knocked him sideways,’ recalled Jennifer. ‘It broke my heart watching him being sick six or seven times a day.
‘Some days he was so weak that me and Jay, who was 12 at the time, had to carry him out to the car for the short drive to hospital.
‘I remember Jay asking me one evening if Jonny was going to die. I told him “no” – the medicine would fix him for us.’
The couple’s hopes of growing their family were put on the back-burner, but they never stopped trying.
After the treatment Jonny went into remission again, but had an MRI scan every three months to monitor his progress.
Jennifer and Jonny (pictured) would love to begin their IVF treatment as soon as possible – so now they’re appealing for support, after discovering that the Regional Fertility Centre in Belfast offers the procedure, but it would cost almost £6,000
So far Jennifer and Jonny (pictured) have raised almost £2,000 with the help of friends and family since September 2019
It was following one of those routine scans in July 2019, at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital, that the couple were given terrible news.
‘They said Jonny had four new tumours on his spinal cord,’ Jennifer said. ‘I thought it’d mean more surgery, but instead they said they wouldn’t operate this time.
‘The doctor said Jonny’s cancer was like a weed. Every time you pull a weed out of the ground, it grows back again somewhere else.
‘They would continue to monitor the cancer, and he may be offered chemotherapy or more surgery if any of the tumours became operable. But he couldn’t be cured. They told us to go home and enjoy life while we could; make memories.’
After breaking the news to their families, Jennifer asked Jonny whether he’d like to make a bucket list. Jonny’s reply left her stunned.
The couple’s tragedy began in 2014, shortly after they tied the knot and returned home from honeymooning in Egypt, as Jonny began complaining of a severe headache at the base of his skull. Pictured: Jennifer with her sister
It turned out that Jonny (pictured with Jennifer) had a rare type of cancer called an ependymoma, which affects the brain and spinal cord
‘I’ve done lots of exciting things in my life,’ explained Jonny. ‘I wasn’t bothered about travelling or skydiving; anything like that. The one thing I wanted was to be a daddy. I’d always wanted a baby of my own.’
It was the one thing Jennifer hadn’t been able to give him. But then her sister Christina Beattie, 40, spoke up.
‘I told them I’d have their baby,’ she said. ‘I didn’t hesitate; it just came out. As soon as Jonny said he wanted a baby, I knew I wanted to help them. For me, it’s the greatest gift I could give.
‘I told them I’d be their surrogate; using Jennifer’s eggs and Jonny’s sperm. I’ve got four kids of my own so we know my body can carry children. It seemed like the best and quickest way to success.’
Jennifer and Jonny were ‘blown away’ by her incredible gesture; asking her to think about it very carefully. But over the next few weeks the trio began researching their options.
Following treatment Jonny (pictured with his wife) went into remission, but the cancer came back again in July 2019
Christina (pictured right, with her sister) said: ‘Jonny has a bumpy road ahead, but children bring such joy. If there was a baby there would always be something for them to look forward to’
Christina had been sterilised after her fourth pregnancy, but because her womb was still intact that made her an ideal candidate for surrogacy.
They discovered that the Regional Fertility Centre in Belfast could offer the treatment, but it would cost almost £6,000.
‘Jonny had already had to give up work because of his cancer, so we were getting by on my wage as a pharmacy advisor alone,’ said Jennifer. ‘There was no way we could afford it.
‘So in September 2019 we started a campaign through Go Fund Me to raise the money. Our friends and family immediately got behind us, and we’ve already got almost £2,000.’
Jennifer and Jonny would love to begin their IVF treatment as soon as possible – so now they’re appealing for support.
Christina said: ‘Jonny has a bumpy road ahead, but children bring such joy. If there was a baby there would always be something for them to look forward to.
‘Jonny is such a good man, he’s been a great step-father to Jay and has made Jennifer so happy. He deserves to have a child of his own.’