When the last thing you expect is to be diagnosed with breast cancer at age 30 (or under 40, honestly), your desire to have (or not have) future children becomes very clear suddenly. I may have been the person who was in no rush to have kiddos, but I took it pretty hard knowing I was about to start chemotherapy that would significantly affect my ability to reproduce, possibly even making it impossible to conceive naturally.
In all the rush of my initial diagnosis, I wasn’t able to write about options to preserve fertility during chemotherapy. Honestly, it was some of the most emotional decision-making I had to do at the time, so maybe I put it off because it was all very overwhelming! Ultimately, I made two important decisions in order to help save my fertility, which I’ll share below with a few other important concepts regarding fertility preservation.
Chemotherapy & Its Effect on the Ovaries
First, you may wonder how exactly chemotherapy affects your ovaries. Chemo medications are designed to target and kill rapidly dividing cancer cells. Unfortunately, those meds can’t differentiate between rapidly dividing cancer cells and rapidly dividing normal cells in the skin, digestive tract, and reproductive organs. Just as you’d expect to see some side effects like skin/nail changes or mouth sores, we expect to see some attack on the ovaries as they also have a known cycle of cell turnover (a.k.a. ovulation). Thus, if you’ve never had children, and your cancer is stable enough to delay treatment for a few weeks to a month, your doctor should recommend all of the fertility-preservation options they have available. If they don’t offer, you better ask!
Egg Preservation Prior to Active Treatment
I was referred to a fertility specialist/reproductive endocrinologist who was excellent. I had the option to extract eggs (unfertilized) or embryos (fertilized) which would be frozen by a process called vitrification until I need them at a later date. I chose to freeze eggs as research now shows no major difference in later IVF success rates whether an egg or embryo is used, per my physician.
The whole process is timed with the menstrual cycle, so specific hormones are injected during the follicular phase (when the ovarian follicles that store the eggs begin to grow and mature) beginning on day 2 or 3 of menstruation. The fertility specialists monitor follicle growth and count every few days with a pelvic ultrasound and bloodwork. As the follicles mature, indicating ovulation to be close, a different medication is given to delay ovulation until the mature eggs can be retrieved.
The retrieval process is done under light anesthesia in the fertility office. A needle is directed into each ovary through the back of the vaginal vault. Suction is used to retrieve the mature follicles, and after inspection of all eggs to determine which are viable, the eggs can be fast frozen (“vitrified”) and stored in an egg bank until needed. Voila! Now, I have a back-up option post-cancer if I’m unable to conceive naturally! Thank goodness for modern medicine.
Throughout all of that, the worst side effects I had were some moderate bloating and cramping after the egg retrieval. I was also given a separate hormone during the follicle-stimulating phase that helped to avoid an estrogen spike so my mood remained stable throughout (I’m sure my husband appreciated that I wasn’t a hormonal monster through it all). Despite having to delay chemo about 4 weeks to complete this process (remember, they like to time it with your natural cycle), I have no regrets on completing this first for peace of mind alone.
The Cost of Fertility Preservation
Whoever my future kids are, I hope they know I reallllllyyyy want them, because fertility options are not cheap! Most insurances do not cover egg/embryo preservation if you do not have a diagnosis of “infertility” even if you get cancer that you never wanted which might render you infertile… (I’ll refrain from saying any more). The egg retrieval process alone usually costs somewhere around $10k which doesn’t include the annual storage fee for the eggs (mine is about $700 per year).
Fortunately, there is a great option for cancer thrivers through the Livestrong Foundation. My fertility specialist had me begin paperwork to apply for their grant which covers about 1/3 of the total cost if you qualify (most cancer patients do unless your insurance covers). Ask your fertility doc if this is an option for you!
Options to Preserve Ovarian Function during Chemo
Besides the pre-treatment egg retrieval, my medical oncologist also recommended that I go on a gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonist called Zoladex during chemo. This is a monthly injection that essentially halts ovarian function by blocking GnRH (a hormone released from the hypothalamus in the brain that triggers the release of follicle-stimulating and leutinizing hormones which act directly on the ovaries). The cancer community “lovingly” refers to this state of no periods as “chemopause” because it is essentially a medically-induced menopause complete with joint aches and hot flashes. I have been lucky that my side effects have been mild, and I’m very thankful to give my reproductive system this brief pause while I kick cancer’s ass.
After treatment, once I get the ok from docs, I’ll still be able to try to conceive naturally. The chances of conceiving naturally are lower for those of us who’ve gone through chemo or radiation, but it’s definitely possible! If I need a little help, then I’ve got a few tiny frozen eggs lined up for further fertility treatments down the line.
It’s Okay to Be Concerned about Your Fertility
I’m thankful that my OB/GYN and oncology team were very supportive about fertility preservation prior to starting active treatment. For many women, hearing your plans for a family will likely have to change after cancer is devastating. I didn’t expect to be so emotional about this whole process, to be honest. I’ve always wanted kids some day, but I wasn’t a person who constantly planned my life around it. Even still, early into my diagnosis, I found myself mourning the loss of my potential fertility more than the fact that I could die from cancer. I don’t believe it does anyone any good to stop planning for the future and let cancer have all the control, so be sure to tell your doctors how important saving your reproductive health is to you!
My heart goes out to anyone reading this and going through the same decision-making process. My heart goes out to those of you reading this who are struggling to conceive even without a cancer diagnosis. I’m so thankful to have so many options to consider and know that, in the right time, children will be a part of my journey, too. For those of you just starting out on your cancer and fertility journey, be sure to ask your doctors what the best options are for you!