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Fertility Preservation for Women with Breast Cancer

A blog by Arthur Castelbaum, MD, RMA at Jefferson, March 24, 2015

Breakthrough treatments for cancer happen almost every month. Yet, many of these life-saving medications will make it difficult for survivors to have children, as they damage eggs and sperm. More than 11,000 women under age 40 are diagnosed with breast cancer annually. As couples wait longer to have their first baby, many newly diagnosed breast cancer patients have no children at the time of diagnosis. Fewer than 10% will have children on their own after treatment. All women who are newly diagnosed with cancer should have the opportunity to meet with a fertility preservation specialist, especially now that egg and embryo freezing technologies are dramatically more successful than even a few years ago. Sadly, fewer than half of women who could freeze eggs or embryos prior to chemotherapy are ever given this chance.

Fertility preservation is not a complicated process. Our practice routinely meets with fertility preservation patients within 24 hours. Through the generosity of one of the leading pharmaceutical companies, our team can access thousands of dollars of medications that stimulate the ovaries for free. Most women start these small easy-to-take injections within three days of their initial visit, and eggs are harvested within two weeks of treatment. It does not matter at what point in her menstrual cycle that fertility preservation medications commence. Happily, fertility preservation treatment does not lower breast cancer survival rates.

If the woman has a partner, she usually will freeze fertilized eggs (embryos). Women who do not have a partner typically will freeze eggs. Those eggs can be fertilized years later with sperm. A newer egg/embryo freezing technique called Vitrification has dramatically improved pregnancy rates, especially with frozen eggs.

Early referral to a fertility specialist maximizes the chance that a cancer survivor will have a child. Fertility preservation is the first step towards beating cancer. The decision to freeze eggs and embryos gives patients peace of mind. It reflects a genuine optimism that they will be cured and return to become parents. As cancer survival rates have improved over the past generation, quality of life after cure (especially family building) has become more important to both doctors and patients.

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