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Fertility-Saving Options for Breast Cancer Patients

By Tracey Minella

October 2nd, 2012 at 8:11 pm

credit: wpclipart.com

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The movement to remind women to get mammograms is in full swing.  Pink… the color for breast cancer awareness… is everywhere. It is no longer taboo to talk about breasts! Silicone bracelets proclaiming “Save the Tatas” and “I Love Boobies” have been spotted on the wrists of young and old alike.

Society’s newfound comfort with the word “breast” …and its slang…is evidence of how far breast cancer awareness has come. And it offers hope that the infertility awareness campaign will someday join breast cancer in terms of public awareness, funding, and support. If we can openly talk openly about breasts, can ovaries be far behind?

When you’re trying to conceive and you can’t, and then you go to a fertility specialist for help, and it still doesn’t happen, some women might think their life is over. That nothing could be worse. That no one has it harder than they do. Some may even feel that there’s no reason to go on if they can’t have a baby.

That probably sounds melodramatic to anyone who hasn’t faced down infertility… who hasn’t faced the possibility that the most maternal of our instincts, desires, and needs could be denied. But while the infertile woman is absolutely justified in feeling the whole range of emotions that accompany her diagnosis, things could actually be worse.

“What could possibly be worse than being infertile?” you ask.

You could have breast cancer.

It wasn’t all that long ago that a breast cancer diagnosis, with its accompanying chemotherapy and/or radiation, meant the end of a woman’s dream of having a biological child. The focus…and rightly so…was on saving her life. Not her breast. And certainly not her fertility.

Today there are more options for women. Now, women may have the chance to freeze their eggs or embryos prior to undergoing chemo or radiation or prior to surgically removing their ovaries. By doing that, women may be able to preserve their fertility for a future time when their breast cancer…or any cancer… crisis is behind them.

Although some breast cancer survivors do not undergo chemotherapy or radiation and, accordingly don’t compromise their fertility, many women do need these more aggressive cancer treatments. Thanks to egg and embryo freezing now, and IVF and embryo transfers later, more breast cancer survivors will be able to enjoy the post-cancer miracle of giving birth to a biological child.

Hopefully most oncologists and primary care doctors would refer young, newly-diagnosed cancer patients who have yet to start or complete their families to a reproductive endocrinologist for a consultation prior to chemotherapy or radiation or oophorectomy if time permits. If not, it’s an omission that can’t be remedied later.

Even if the referral is recommended, can a newly-diagnosed cancer patient even wrap her head around saving her fertility when she fears for her life? And if so, does her particular cancer allow her the time to explore this option? And what about teens whose health care is effectively still in the hands of their parents? Will the parents even think about their “baby’s” future fertility in the chaos of living through a parent’s worst nightmare?

It’s up to all of us to help spread the word about fertility-saving options so no woman who beats cancer has to find out afterward that she can’t become pregnant using her own eggs. So, file this information away and hope you never need to use it:

If any female you know (except post-menopausal women)…even a teen… is ever diagnosed with breast cancer, tell her or her spouse or parent to consider consulting  a reproductive endocrinologist before having chemotherapy or radiation or before removing her ovaries, if her cancer treatment protocol can accommodate the delay. You just might save her fertility. Of course, any post-menopausal woman diagnosed with breast cancer and any woman who did not pursue fertility preservation efforts prior to undergoing chemotherapy and/or radiation could explore conceiving with donor eggs or embryos after her treatment ends.

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Do you know of anyone who preserved her fertility prior to cancer treatment? Would you be able to share this information with someone diagnosed with cancer?

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