When Sarah Sharp experienced abnormal menstrual bleeding in her early 30s, she wondered if it was a miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy or complications from the birth of her daughter a year before. After some monitoring, her doctor called her in late one night in May 2018 for an emergency procedure to remove tissue from her uterus and test for cancer.

She learned that complications from the procedure, called a dilation and curettage, could result in an emergency hysterectomy. A surgeon was on standby.

Suddenly at 31, Sarah was grappling with the potential end of her plans to have more children. Squeezing her hand, her twin sister Cathey Stoner made a comment to let Sarah know she had her back and to lighten the mood:

“I’ll have your babies if you have a hysterectomy,” Cathey remembers telling her sister.

The results of the procedure came back: It was choriocarcinoma, a rare form of uterine cancer that would require seven months of chemotherapy. Initially, the treatment was successful, but when the cancer returned, her doctors felt a hysterectomy would give Sarah the best chance of survival.

She was relieved to know she was likely to survive, but grieved the loss of her ability to carry more children and have a large family, like the one she grew up in on the outskirts of Nashville. (Sarah and Cathey have two other sisters.) But as she headed into the surgery, Sarah said, she felt scared, doubting if she would make it and feeling like she couldn’t trust her body anymore. This time, her sister’s offer was genuine: “If there’s any sadness in you that is grieving the loss of future children, I really will have your babies,” Cathey said.

The surgery was successful and Sarah was officially cancer-free in May of 2019. She spent the next year healing, mentally and physically, grappling with the trauma of her illness and figuring out what was next. A year out, her doctor brought up the idea of surrogacy. She remembered her sister’s promise.

Now, it’s really happening. After enduring a lengthy IVF process in the throes of the pandemic, Cathey is six weeks away from giving birth to her sister’s son, John Ryder. The duo, who are now 34 and live in Nashville, discuss their surrogacy journey, women’s health, wellness and more on their podcast “Talk To Me Sister.” Sarah has gone back to work remotely as an interior design sales consultant and a painter. Cathey is a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, and her expertise informs their conversations about wellness on the show.

Cathey Stoner (left) and Sarah Sharp (right) at their baby shower in Nashville. (Family photo)
Cathey Stoner (left) and Sarah Sharp (right) at their baby shower in Nashville. (Family photo)

The Lily talked to the twins about advocating for women’s health, their surrogacy process and what they’ve learned through it all.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What has the surrogacy process been like for you?

Cathey: It has just been life-changing for our entire family. I feel so honored every day when I feel him move! I’m like, “Oh, you’re in there and I love you and I can’t wait to get you to your mom and dad.”

Sarah: It’s just been a really sweet season. I can’t wait to get him here, but I’m also relishing the last six weeks, because Cathey and I have gotten even closer. We’re together all the time, and we’ve been doing our podcast, which has been a really cool experience. We’ve also connected with a lot of incredible women along the way who have reached out about a recent diagnosis, or who are thinking about surrogacy.

There are times where I didn’t ever comprehend that life could be sweet again. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in those moments in your lives, that are so dark and so devastating, it’s hard to even picture good things around the corner. But it really has been such a sweet time.

What was it like to come to terms with the hysterectomy after your surgery?

Sarah: I already felt so out of control after the cancer diagnosis — you stop trusting your body. I grieved the fact that my time having children was coming to an end so quickly. It was especially difficult during that year after treatment. While I was watching my hair grow back and trying to get stronger, I had to deal emotionally with a lot of the trauma and grief. I did EMDR therapy and one-on-one counseling, and I leaned on my faith and family a lot.

It was important for me to vocalize my grief and not just be happy that I was cancer-free. It was still really difficult. When I accepted my circumstances through the surrogacy process, I kind of just got peace about it and was able to be present in the moment and understand that life doesn’t always work out like you want it, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be a blessing.

What advice would you give to women about taking care of their mental and physical health?

Sarah: When I was diagnosed in 2018, I was coming out of the height of my corporate career. I really didn’t understand what self-care meant, and I was always putting myself last. Nothing’s going to rock your world or change your perspective like a cancer diagnosis. The year after, I really decided to take care of my mental health. I used to view that as a selfish thing and think I had to put my family and my career first.

But from now on, I always say, “Don’t be afraid to put yourself first. Don’t be afraid to raise your hand if you need help. Don’t be afraid to call your doctor.” As women, we’re often dismissed, in both mental and physical health issues.

Cathey: What I tell my clients is that no one’s going to do it for us. Sometimes it’s hard work to decide to put ourselves forward. Sometimes that means saying no to things. When we take care of ourselves, we can take care of other people, which is what I’m doing right now with the surrogacy. I’ve taken care of myself so that I can give myself as a gift and service to somebody else. It’s the whole idea of filling your cup up first before you dole out to other people.

What’s been the biggest thing you’ve learned throughout the past few years? What’s surprised you the most?

Cathey: The biggest thing I’ve learned is just to continue to follow your gut when that spirit inside you tells you to do something — like Sarah’s instinct to go to the doctor and get the bleeding checked out, or my offer to be a surrogate. Fear holds us back a lot, but I’ve learned a lot about trusting my own instincts.

Sarah: I’ve been blown away by the love of our family and the gift of surrogacy. When we have really hard, dark days, it’s hard to see out of it. But I always say, pain doesn’t last forever. And if you can just hold on to any kind of light and take one day at a time, you never know how life is going to surprise you. We’ve just been overwhelmed at the love. And we hope that other people have also felt that through our story.

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