Potomac native Randi Fishman was 28 when she found out she had breast cancer. After treatment and then a recurrence, doctors advised her not to get pregnant. That’s when her sister offered to carry a baby for her.
On a rainy evening in June, Randi Fishman and her husband, Zach, are lounging on the sectional sofa at their Potomac townhouse, their two daughters snuggled between them as the television drones on in the background. When 6-month-old Austyn needs burping, Randi is on her feet. “She loves her bottle,” Randi says as she lifts the baby, who flashes a smile from over her mom’s shoulder and tries to blow kisses to anyone who looks her way. Austyn’s 3-year-old sister, Parker, wraps herself around her dad’s knee while the grown-ups chat. She’s in her Cinderella nightgown, exhausted and hungry after a day at camp.
For Randi, there’s nothing mundane about this scene, given how hard she’s had to fight for it. Early in their marriage, Randi and Zach, now both 35, would have giddy conversations about whether they wanted to have two children, like his family, or three, like hers. But just before their first wedding anniversary, the discovery of a small lump in Randi’s right breast changed everything. Zach can reel off from memory the dates of every major medical event that followed: Randi’s double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery in October 2011, her visit with a specialist at Shady Grove Fertility in Rockville soon after, the recurrence of the breast cancer nearly a year later, then the start of radiation treatment.
The conversation bores Parker, a lover of sparkly jewelry and hair accessories. “Stop talking,” she says, eager for attention. Randi breaks away to unfold a kiddie table and brings her little girl a slice of pizza. Austyn is propped on the couch, still smiling.
Even after Randi was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 28, she planned on getting pregnant one day, so she decided she wanted to freeze her embryos for safekeeping. But when the cancer returned, her medical team advised her against carrying a child because pregnancy-related hormones could stimulate the growth of more cancerous cells. That’s when she and Zach began to seriously consider finding a gestational surrogate, someone to carry their biological child.
“We always knew surrogacy was a possibility,” says Zach, a commercial real estate developer who took the lead on researching fertility options.
“I didn’t know,” Randi says, “not at the beginning.” She’d heard about surrogacy in passing from her doctors and saw a story on the news about a mother who’d carried a baby for her grown daughter. But for most of her adult life, Randi had just assumed she’d get pregnant. “In my wildest dreams I couldn’t imagine someone else carrying my child,” she says. She ended up using two different surrogates, and the second was her own sister.
The call that upended Randi’s life came on Oct. 14, 2011. The Winston Churchill High School graduate was living in New York City, working as a sales representative for young fashion designers, when she returned home to Potomac for the Yom Kippur holiday. Toward the end of her visit she went in for a routine gynecological exam. Dr. Tobie Beckerman felt a small lump in Randi’s right breast but didn’t think much of it. The chances of breast cancer at Randi’s age were slim—according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), 1.9 percent of new female breast cancer cases are diagnosed in women ages 20 to 34. Beckerman figured it was a cyst, or normal glandular tissue that was unusually close to the surface. Nothing to panic about, she said, just something to monitor. But because Randi was going back to New York, the gynecologist ordered a sonogram that day.
Randi wasn’t worried until the image revealed a mass. The radiologist kept saying it looked “weird,” without offering specifics, she recalls. “That’s when I started to panic,” Randi says. She rushed back to see Beckerman, who scheduled a biopsy for the following day with Dr. Glenn Sandler, a local surgeon with a special interest in breast surgery. Three days later Randi was at home in New York with Zach, her cellphone next to her, waiting for Sandler to call with the results. When she heard the doctor say “cancer,” she froze. The tears began to flow. She didn’t hear anything else, she says. Zach asked most of the questions. Let’s not rush to panic, he thought, let’s figure out what we’re up against.
Still emotional, Randi called her mother, Devon Burak, who told her to get on a train and come home. Randi’s two sisters, who also lived in New York City, dropped everything when they heard. Her sister Erin, who is 15 months older, screamed into the phone, then dashed out of her office to meet her husband, Evan, at their apartment. They tossed some clothes into a bag and left for Penn Station. Randi’s younger sister, Jamie, ran straight to the train station from work. The three girls had grown closer as they got older. They’d had a love-hate relationship when they were younger, as sisters often do. Randi would lock her bedroom door when friends were over and refuse to let her little sister in. Jamie would sit in their Jack and Jill bathroom, ear pressed to the door trying to eavesdrop, and Erin, the quietest of the three, would play peacemaker: “Come on, Randi, just let her in.”
When Erin and Randi graduated from high school, a year apart, their mom thought Jamie would revel in having space to herself, but the teen was miserable without her sisters around. The girls’ bond tightened once all three were in college—Erin left for Indiana, Randi for New York and Jamie for Wisconsin—and they were ecstatic when they all eventually ended up in New York City. “We would do anything for each other,” says Jamie, 31. “Anything.”
Within two hours of finding out that Randi had breast cancer, Erin and Jamie were huddled around their sister as they all waited to get on a train to D.C. Erin remembers Randi clinging to her old baby blanket during the ride, crying to the point of exhaustion.