Cancer couldn't stop McKeesport mom and dad from starting their family
They sat on the couch for hours, waiting for the phone to ring.
They knew the odds of receiving good news were against them — doctors put them at 1 in 100,000 — but they couldn't help hoping. This was their one shot, and miracles do happen. Why not for them?
Finally, the phone rang.
Karen Lischner rose from the couch. Her husband, Brandon Lischner, who stayed home from his construction job that day to be with her, watched and waited.
Karen answered. She listened to the voice on the other end. And then she started to cry.
In 2000, when Brandon was 18 and still living at home with his parents in Liberty, he felt a lump.
But he was young and uninformed and cancer was the furthest thing from his mind, further even than the thought of someday being a father.
So he ignored it.
"If I had been better informed, I would have done something," said Brandon, 35, of McKeesport. "It's hard to describe, but at 18, you're not thinking about cancer."
Finally he went to a doctor — for another ailment.
He mentioned the lump on his testicle and the doctor examined.
Brandon had surgery that same day.
Karen had never thought of being a mom.
Maybe it was because her mom died when Karen was 8. She grew up with two brothers and her dad, "and I guess I just never had that motherly feeling," she said. "I didn't want kids."
The surgery was a success, but because Brandon waited so long, the cancer had spread. He also needed radiation.
Before the treatments began, his doctor told him to get sperm removed and frozen, in case the radiation lowered his sperm count to the point that he would be unable to reproduce.
Brandon followed the doctor's advice, and the radiation worked. He beat cancer. He continued living.
But after a while, he did not continue paying for his sperm to be frozen at the sperm bank.
Why would he? He didn't want kids.
They met through a friend.
Their first date was at an Arby's, "because we were young," said Karen, 39, laughing at the memory.
They moved in together. Brandon proposed and Karen said yes. They got married in Las Vegas, then bought a home in McKeesport.
Soon after, the cancer came back. This time, Brandon was prepared.
He knew what to look for, and he checked himself regularly. So when he felt another lump, he went in right away.
Again, his doctor — Dr. P. Dafe Ogagan, a urologist at UPMC McKeesport — urged him to preserve sperm before surgeons removed his second testicle.
Brandon and Karen insisted there was no need.
Dr. Ogagan insisted they reconsider. One day, he said, you might change your minds. And then it will be too late.
"He didn't force me, but he's definitely the reason I did it," Brandon said. "He was very adamant."
"We're so thankful he was," Karen said.
Brandon beat cancer for a second time.
But his sperm count was extremely low, the result of the radiation treatment he received 13 years before or the new cancer.
A healthy male adult can typically produce 20 million sperm. From Brandon, doctors were able to preserve about a dozen.
Of course, it didn't matter.
Brandon and Karen had no plans of ever using them.
The change came suddenly, Karen said.
One day she didn't want to be a mother, and the next she did. It's not that she was wrong when she said she didn't want kids — she didn't.
But people change their minds. Just like Dr. Ogagan said.
And now, suddenly, Karen was one of them.
"I think I do want a baby," she told Brandon when he got home from work.
And just like that, Brandon changed his mind too.
They would need to try in vitro fertilization, a process that, with a normal sample of 20 million sperm, has a success rate of about 50 percent.
But Brandon only had 10 to 15 sperm. Doctors would have to use them all in one attempt. This was their only chance.
"Once they put the embryo in me, they said they would call in two weeks," Karen said. "They tell you to have someone with you."
So Brandon stayed home. And then they waited.
It felt like an eternity.
Finally, the phone rang.
"Hello?" Karen said.
"Congratulations," the voice on the other line responded. "You're pregnant."
Karen began to cry.
"Best day of my life," she said.
She would have more of those.
There was the day they first saw the baby during an ultrasound.
"To see the actual heartbeat — we both cried and cried," Karen said. "Up to that point, I still didn't feel pregnant (but) then we were able to see that there was actually a baby growing in there."
And there was Oct. 18, 2016, the day that Lorenzo John Charles Lischner was born.
The pregnancy had been smooth and Lorenzo entered the world without complications. He cried, then calmed down when the doctors placed him on his mother's chest for an hour of skin-to-skin contact.
"As soon as I saw him, I was in love with him. Instantly," Brandon said. "There are no words to describe the feeling."
How lucky is Lorenzo to have been born?
"Very lucky," said Dr. Joseph S. Sanfilippo, director of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC in Oakland. "That's the precise answer."
But Lorenzo's birth illustrates that miracles do happen.
"This isn't Star Wars," Dr. Sanfilippo said. "This is what we do every day."
It also shows that cancer patients with no plans of reproducing should preserve sperm and eggs (or, in younger patients, testicles and ovaries).
"There is life after cancer," Dr. Sanfilippo said. "Once they're frozen, you can decide what you want to do. But there's no turning back once the chemotherapy begins."
Today Lorenzo is a happy baby who loves to giggle and hug and kiss. At a recent Pirates game, he smiled at his parents constantly, babbled to strangers, and appeared to consider whether he could fit his new shoes in his mouth.
"I think he's going to be a comedian someday," Karen said. "He is always laughing."
When he is older, his parents will tell him how he overcame odds of 1 in 100,000, how he is their miracle baby.
Karen and Brandon suspect he'll already know how special he is.
"Because he's so loved by everyone," Karen said.