She Suffered a Stillbirth and Then Surprise Cancer Before Cousin Carried Her 'Rainbow Baby' (2024)

  • Marisa Merliss had a stillbirth in 2020, at the end of an otherwise "healthy pregnancy"
  • Soon after, while on vacation to recover, she discovered a strange lump on her leg that turned out to be cancerous
  • After treatment, she and her husband welcomed a daughter via a surrogate — her cousin

Everything seemed normal — even uneventful — during Marisa Merliss’ first pregnancy. Until it wasn’t. And although there was a rainbow waiting at the end, Merliss, a professional dancer, says she and her husband weathered emotional and physical storms to get there.

Merliss and Michael Minarik, a theater actor and teacher, initially waited eight years before they embarked on their journey to parenthood.

“We were busy with our careers, I had some injuries from dance, chronic pain, but I waited until I was healthy and out of pain,” she tells PEOPLE. “Then after a full-term, healthy pregnancy, we had a stillbirth at 40 weeks [in 2020].”

Minarik was watching as the nurses monitoring their baby looked at the doctors and shook their heads. And he looked to his wife, who was beaming,unaware.

“I thought — I have about nine seconds of life left before my wife finds out that our daughter has passed away,” Minarik tells PEOPLE now. “When the doctor told her, she looked at me and as a caregiver and the father, I didn’t know how to protect my wife and myself from this pain.”

Their friends hoped to ease their grief by sending them on a beach vacation in New Jersey so they didn’t have to be home, surrounded by reminders of how they should have been raising their little girl.

But even that trip had a twist: The couple was out one day when Merliss noticed something on her upper inner thigh. She asked her husband to take a look.

“There was a croquet, ball-sized lump in her leg and it was huge. And she's like, what's this? And I thought, oh my God,” Minarik says. “So two weeks to the day that we lost our daughter, we were back in the hospital overnight.”

She Suffered a Stillbirth and Then Surprise Cancer Before Cousin Carried Her 'Rainbow Baby' (1)

It was June 2020 at the height of COVID-19 pandemic. They rushed to the nearest hospital where tests were run and Minarik says the doctor told them the strange mass looked “insidious.”

“It sounded outlandish that I could potentially have a cancerous tumor after what we had just gone through,” Merliss says. “I think the traumatic birth and the increased inflammation from all the trauma and emotionally and physically, the tumor filled up with fluid.”

Merliss, who is also a nurse, turned to friends who work at Memorial Sloan Kettering's cancer center in New York City and was able to get in within two days. She was diagnosed with rare synovial sarcoma and needed immediate chemo treatment.

All of this unfolded not long after Merliss' stillbirth.

“It was four weeks to the day that we had lost our daughter,” Minarik says. “We didn’t even have a chance to mourn our child yet.”

She Suffered a Stillbirth and Then Surprise Cancer Before Cousin Carried Her 'Rainbow Baby' (2)

Merliss was immediately concerned about preserving her eggs for a chance to have more children. But the doctors were not encouraging at first.

“Basically theysaid it was too soon after giving birth, then I woke up the next day and got my period,” Merliss says. “So we were given a chance to harvest eggs.”

Time was of the essence in getting her cancer treatment. Doctors gave her less than two weeks to get the eggs harvested before starting four rounds of aggressive chemo.

Luckily, the day Merliss was diagnosed with cancer, her cousin Amanda Schulte offered to be a surrogate. Schulte, a married mother of three herself, says she was thinking about having a fourth child when all this happened.

“I wanted her to know that if she was unable to carry because of the cancer and this horrendous treatment, then I wanted to be the one to do it for them,” Schulte, who lives in Kansas City, Missouri, tells PEOPLE.

She Suffered a Stillbirth and Then Surprise Cancer Before Cousin Carried Her 'Rainbow Baby' (3)

Merliss says she was “hanging on by a thread” after the double hit of her daughter’s death and the cancer diagnosis — and the thought of not having children loomed over her.

“The physical pain, emotional grief, the toll that took was way too much,” she says. “But we just had so many people come out and support us.”

As she was going through cancer treatment, what kept her going was the thought of Schulte’s offer and the dream of picking her life back up post treatment.

It all worked out. Schulte became pregnant in November 2022, and their extended family celebrated the pending arrival of a "rainbow baby" at a big Thanksgiving gathering.

Schulte was induced the next summer, which led to some tense moments for Merliss and Minarik.

She Suffered a Stillbirth and Then Surprise Cancer Before Cousin Carried Her 'Rainbow Baby' (4)

“The big moment was hearing the heartbeat after the induction because that had been the moment before we lost everything and it was the biggest exhale,” Merliss says.

A baby girl, Maya, arrived on July 13, 2023.

Merliss just had her three year cancer check-up; her health is good.She and her husband are thinking about how to celebrate Maya’s first birthday later this summer.

A Broadway production in the park is not out of the question, Minarik joked.

“I was in survival mode for a long time, and now I’m enjoying transitioning into thriving mode,” Merliss says. “Sometimes it’s day to day, or week to week, reminding myself we are now living the life we hoped and dreamed of and embracing that while still honoring the past.”

She Suffered a Stillbirth and Then Surprise Cancer Before Cousin Carried Her 'Rainbow Baby' (2024)
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