At 28 years old, Ivyland, PA grade school sweethearts Maria and Joseph Nicholson seemed to have it all – a strong marriage, a supportive family, and plans for a baby. Everything was falling into place.
The first setback was getting pregnant.
After a year of trying with no success, the couple decided to seek help. Following a few discouraging calls to local fertility clinics that tried to pressure the couple into an appointment, Maria found a clinic that made her feel like family – RMA of Philadelphia.
“I heard concern, empathy and care from the receptionist,” Maria remembered about the call she made in spring 2019. “I remember calling my husband immediately after, and just knowing we had found ‘our place’ that was going to help us bring our family into the world.”
In May 2019, the couple had their first appointment with Dr. Art Castelbaum, who made them feel “so comfortable,” Maria said. “We left confident in our decision.”
The second setback was an ultrasound. Performed shortly after that first appointment, it showed Maria had a septate uterus, which meant her uterus was in effect divided in two.
The condition is associated with higher rates of miscarriage and preterm delivery rates, so the couple decided to have corrective surgery to remove the division. That surgery, performed by RMA Philadelphia’s Dr. Freedman, was a success, and the couple was cleared to begin fertility treatment.
First came Intrauterine Insemination (IUI), which involved using a catheter to insert Joseph’s sperm into Maria’s uterus at the time of ovulation. After four failed attempts, the couple decided, along with Dr. Castelbaum, that they’d move onto the treatment with the highest success rates: In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), which would involve pairing Maria’s eggs and Joseph’s sperm in a laboratory.
Then came the final setback: in December 2019, Maria, who had noticed several lumps on her neck starting in September, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a rare blood cancer.
“I so badly wanted to be a mom, but instead I got cancer,” she said.
But the strong, optimistic and resilient Maria refused to let that setback, or any other, define her.
“Last year challenged us in ways we couldn’t have imagined,” she said recently. “It shook us to our core but we always remained positive, faithful and hopeful. Despite a series of unlucky events, we were always surrounded by the brightest lights in the world. We consider Dr. Castelbaum and his entire team to be our diamonds in the sky.”
“They have given us our hope and our drive to fight through this cancer.”
The fight began with the first comeback: the couple would go through IVF – embryo freezing but not transfer – immediately, so Maria’s upcoming chemotherapy and radiation would not negatively affect her ovarian reserve.
“I was beyond excited to start the IVF process and prayed hard that this worked as we really only had one chance at this before my treatment began,” Maria said.
Then came the second comeback: the retrieval was a success, with Dr. Castelbaum retrieving 17 eggs.
The next day, the couple learned that ten of those eggs had fertilized, and six made it to embryo genetic testing, known as PGT-A. The test identifies the chromosomal makeup of embryos and labels them normal or abnormal, with normal embryos available for transfer.
Then, one day after Maria began chemotherapy, came the third comeback: all six embryos were normal – truly a statistical anomaly, and this time, the good kind.
Just when Maria needed it most.
“It was an absolute miracle,” Maria said. “On days where my chemotherapy treatment gets the best of me, Joseph always says, ‘keep doing this for the 6!’ and it gives me all the motivation I need!”
As of May 2020, Maria was still undergoing treatment to beat her cancer, which she is determined to do. And when she does, she’ll be ready to undergo a Frozen Embryo Transfer (FET) of one of her six embryos by spring or summer 2021 – and she couldn’t feel more grateful.
“Going through infertility treatment, followed by cancer treatment, it changes you,” Maria said. “In my case, we have chosen to remain positive and optimistic about what the future entails. I’m thankful for what infertility and cancer have taught me. It’s taught me to love deeper, worry less and enjoy life to the fullest.”
“I have such a grateful heart for what Dr. Castelbaum and his team have done for our family. They have given us hope. Our journey is still continuing but we are counting down the days till we are back in their office and can transfer our babies, who are in our hearts until they can be in our arms forever!”
Here’s to all of Maria’s future comebacks, and her six little miracles.