Promise – An Account of Cancer and Fertility Preservation

08 May
Frozen Human Embryos

It was just two months after my thirtieth birthday, which I embraced with gusto—no more tumultuous twenties!—when I got the phone call. That call that nobody wants to get, the one where they tell you it’s cancer. My husband and I reeled. We were young and healthy. The ink on our marriage license was still wet. How could this be?

On Valentine’s Day we met with the breast cancer surgeon. His words hung over us, surreal clouds from another universe. Aggressive. Mastectomy. Chemo.

I had only one question for him. “What about kids?”

“You’re young enough, your fertility will probably come back.”

Probably? I felt the floor drop, and we hovered in the uncertainty. Ryan and I had been planning to start our family upon our one-year anniversary. Those unborn children were my heart, my dream. Would I ever meet them? Would they even get a chance? Sure, I had cancer. But what about them?

Soon we were immersed in a world of tests, medical jargon, and life-or-death decisions. We treaded water. When we discovered that a clinic called the Sher Institute was freezing eggs for cancer patients for free, I felt a flutter of hope. We made an appointment with Dr. Saleh, who carefully talked through my diagnosis with us.

The news wasn’t good. The types of chemo I would need were highly toxic. Even if my fertility came back, my eggs would be fried. I needed to do IVF if possible. “The thing is,” he said, “in order to do this I will have to inject you with a lot of estrogen. Your cancer is ER+, estrogen receptive, so its growth is fueled by estrogen. You need to ask your oncologist whether or not he will allow this procedure.”

I fought to stay upright, to just keep breathing, but inside I collapsed. No way would he allow it. My dream was dead.

Not knowing what to do, I headed toward the nail salon across the street. The technician scrubbed and polished my feet while I stared down the black void that was threatening to swallow me up. She eyed my wristband from an earlier hospital visit.

“You sick?” she asked. I nodded. “Ah, I’m sorry. My son just had flu—awful.” She scrubbed. “What you have?”

She wasn’t prepared. “Cancer.”

She was mortified. “So young!”

“Yep.” I closed my eyes and fell into the abyss. 

Two weeks later, I had my mastectomy. After I was recovered, I met with the oncologist for the first time. I’d chosen him in part because I’d heard he supported IVF, though reason told me it was a lost cause. Given my circumstances, I hardly expected his blessing.

He gave it anyway. “Do it,” he said. I felt air return to my lungs, blood to my fingers and toes. The cancer had to be active for chemo to work, he explained. It was controversial, but if the estrogen got my cancer going, and then we zapped it with chemo, the treatment might even be more effective. More than that, with three boys of his own, he understood how important this was.

“If it were your wife, what would you tell her to do?” my dad asked.

“I would tell her to do it. Absolutely.”

In the end, we opted for embryo freezing, and the procedure had to be carefully timed between my surgery and chemo. That happened to be over Easter weekend, just days after our one-year anniversary. Once again, we nervously awaited results. When we got the call, we cried tears of joy, relief, promise. We had expected four to five at best, but we had produced eleven little embryos. We called them our Easter eggs, and we loved them instantly.

How could we have known our unborn children would save our lives? One year later, we still don’t know them. We don’t know what our family will look like or when it will take root. Those little promises, like me, have no guarantees. They are all potential. Like me, they will have to fight for their lives; the conditions will have to be right. But they have a chance. And because of the hope they gave me, so do I.

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