Brest Cancer Series

Woman delays treatment with the hope of having children

CREATED Oct 3, 2012

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MILWAUKEE - It is breast cancer awareness month and we are bringing you a special series of stories covering new ways women with the diagnosis are trying to fight, beat, and survive breast cancer. 

Today's story is from a Milwaukee woman who's just been diagnosed.  She's only 35 years-old and her breast cancer is also forcing some other big life choices. 

"I found a lump...probably back in June," says Lindsay O'Conner.  Her world has been a haze ever since.  She's had a lumpectomy and her lymphnodes were also removed on her right side.  Now she's planning for chemotherapy and radiation treatments. 

But there's just one thing, "Besides dealing with the breast cancer diagnosis, I want to have a child of my own."

Dr. Paul Robb is O'Conner's reproductive endocrinologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin.  He says, "Two-thirds of women or so will lose their ovarian function after cancer treatments for things like breast cancer."  Robb continued on to say, "Cancer treatment, and specifically the chemotherapy, will go to the ovaries and will go to the cells there that are the egg cells.  When a woman loses those, she loses the chance to have children of her own."

Dr. Robb is part of an entire medical team that is now working with O'Conner and her husband to try to not only rid Lindsay of cancer, but preserve her chances for having a biological child. 

O'Conner's breast surgeon is Dr. Amanda Kong.  She says treating women who get breast cancer in their 20's and 30's presents entirely different issues than the majority of women who get the disease after menopause.

Dr. Kong says, "Many doctors are not addressing the issue of oncofertility with their patients.  And there's been a movement to increase awareness of, um, preserving fertility in younger cancer patents, both women and men, before they start treatment."

But doing that, preserving fertility while also treating the cancer, is not easy.  Dr. Kong says, "It's very overwhelming in the first office visit when you're breaking the news to somebody, but I do like to broach the subject of fertility issues because it takes a lot of coordination so that we are getting the patient timely treatment for their cancer but at the same time we're able to take their fertility issues into account."

O'Conner says, "It definitely takes a toll on you emotionally, at least for me."  She choked up as she continued on to say, "At least for me, um, there's a lot of crying, and um frustration, but there are opportunities for me to save...to preserve me fertility."

For Lindsay and her husband there was no doubt about the treatment choice.  She says they want to have a child of their own.  O'Conner's doctors have worked out the timing and now that her surgery is done, she is doing a round of invitrofertilization with the hopes of saving and freezing embryos. 

She says, "With breast cancer treatment, they don't recommend, because I have to take tamoxifin, that you get pregnant for five years after you're finished with treatment."

Dr. Robb adds, "Even if she doesn't lose ovarian function due to the chemotherapy, just that timeframe of before she could try to have a child of her own, um, will put her into a much lesser, uh, reproductive, uh, success rate."

But Dr. Robb was quick to add that O'Conner and her husband have a promising chance at a future family, "This is the best treatment that we have to preserve, um, ovarian function because we know that it works.  We've been doing IVF for, you know, decades now and so it's a very proven technology."

The down sides are the cost and the price of delaying treatment.  Invitrofertilization is not typically covered by insurance companies and one round of it can cost $10-15,000.  And if breast cancer patients wait too long in between their surgery and when they begin chemotherapy, it can lose some of its effectiveness. 

Still, as all the details are being worked out around her, O'Conner remains positive and hopeful, "I'm just looking forward to it.  It's not a 100% guarantee, but it's, it's highly likely that it'll be successful."