Five years ago, Sheri Scott, 31, was planning for her upcoming wedding. She knew her life was about to change forever, but she didn’t expect the change to be breast cancer.
Just weeks after becoming engaged to be married, Scott put her wedding plans on hold while she planned instead for a double mastectomy. The last thing on her mind right then was family planning. Luckily, her doctor at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital approached her about options to preserve her chances of having children in the future.
While cancer treatments can be lifesaving, many young people don’t know cancer treatments can compromise a person’s fertility. Chemotherapy can cause ovarian damage or failure in women, or she may become menopausal because of certain chemotherapy treatments.
In men, infertility primarily occurs through damage of the testicular lining, according to the Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center. Likewise, radiation therapy and some cancer-related surgery can also inhibit a person’s ability to later reproduce.
Often doctors don’t discuss reproductive issues with their patients who are focused on preserving their own life. That’s a big problem, says Lisa Bernhard, a breast cancer survivor, co-host and producer of the Stupid Cancer Show and an advocate for young cancer survivors with the I’m Too Young For This! Cancer Foundation.
“Not enough doctors are counseling us to save our eggs or sperm prior to treatment because there is a high probability the cancer treatment could make us infertile. That’s not okay, and it’s downright devastating to find that out after treatment when it’s too late,” Bernhard said.
Dr Ralph R. Kazer, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist at Northwestern Memorial and professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine agrees. “When a young person is diagnosed with cancer, there is only a brief window of time to learn about options for preserving their fertility before treatment. Once a patient begins chemotherapy or radiation, they are at risk of losing their ability to have children in the future,” he said in a written statement.
Scott admits she was taken back when her doctors suggested in vitro fertilization (IVF) as the best option for her. “I had just got engaged so I hadn’t really thought about kids,” she says. “I was more concerned at the time if I would see my wedding day.”
After consultation, Scott and her fiancé opted for emergency IVF. Doctors at Northwestern Memorial worked quickly to harvest her eggs, fertilize them with her fiancé’s sperm and freeze them for use later in life. The outpatient procedure was completed in a couple weeks, a process that usually can take more than a month.
At the time, Scott was one of the first patients to take part in Northwestern’s Fertility Preservation Program. Over the last five years, the program has rapidly advanced and fertility preservation is more commonly discussed, allowing men, women and even adolescents, the option to undergo fertility saving procedures prior to cancer therapy.
Northwestern Memorial is one of several hospitals nationwide now offering fertility preservation to the estimated 70,000 adolescent and young adults diagnosed with cancer each year.
Fertility preservation options have been expanded over the last few years to now include freezing ovarian tissue and sperm extraction in addition to embryo, egg and sperm banking. Researchers continue to explore several other fertility preservation techniques.
In the past, when a patient was diagnosed with cancer the only focus was to get them into surgery and through chemotherapy or radiation. Northwestern Memorial in partnership with Feinberg School of Medicine is the first group in the world known to offer a dedicated fertility preservation patient navigator to help guide newly-diagnosed cancer patients through the process.
Scott says five years after making that life-changing decision, she is cancer-free, married and the mother to twin baby girls, Addison Grace and Avery Jane.
“They are my entire world,” says Scott. “I am grateful I chose to preserve my embryos and more importantly, that the option was presented to me. If my doctor hadn’t mentioned fertility preservation, I may not have been able to have kids and experience the joy I have today.”
Click for more information about Northwestern’s Fertility Preservation Program, or call 312-503-3378.
Lynette Summerill, an award-winning writer and scuba enthusiast lives in San Diego, CA with her husband and two canine kids. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in newspapers and magazines around the world.
Personal interview with Lisa Bernhard. 8 Feb. 2011. I’m too young for this! Cancer Foundation
Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Press release. Life Beyond Cancer: Starting a Family Following Treatment 24 Oct. 2011.
Chemotherapy side effects: Preservation of Fertility. Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center. 26 Oct. 2011. http://www.chemocare.com/managing/fertility.asp
Reviewed October 27, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith