More and more options exist for preserving fertility after cancer treatment. And that means that more and more cancer survivors can now get pregnant and become biological parents.
“Honey, why do you care about your fertility? You’re fighting for your life.” That was the first reaction Annie Dauer, then just 29 years old, got from her oncologist when she worried about whether she’d ever be able to become pregnant. Ten months earlier, Dauer, who now lives in Fayetteville, New York, had been diagnosed with stage 3B Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes of the chest, spleen, and lungs. After an initially mild regimen of chemotherapy, a re-scan showed the cancer hadn’t gone into remission. Worse, by then Dauer had developed stage 4 large Diffuse B-Cell Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a rare form of both Hodgkin’s and Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The outlook was grim, and the young physical education teacher was given a 20 to 30 percent chance of survival.
Still, Dauer would not bury her hopes of getting pregnant and being a mother one day. “I know I’m fighting for my life, but I’m going to get through this,” she insisted to herself. “If I make it, I’ve done something to protect my fertility. And if I don’t make it, I don’t make it. At least I did everything I could.”
In spite of her initial reaction, Dauer’s oncologist, herself a mother of five, understood what her patient was feeling. She referred her patient to Kutluk Oktay, M.D., associate professor of reproductive medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York, who was conducting research on fertility preservation in the face of cancer.
Dauer didn’t hesitate to participate in the study that had so far yielded no pregnancies. Not that she had much choice. Her cancer clock was ticking away, ruling out embryo or egg cryopreservation (freezing). “They said, ‘You don’t have time for six to eight weeks to put off treatment because you want to harvest eggs. It’s just not an option.’ So, I said, ‘Well, what is the option?’”
The option was to remove one of Dauer’s ovaries before the start of chemotherapy. Dr. Oktay sectioned the ovary into strips, and froze them in liquid nitrogen so that they could be transplanted under the skin of Dauer’s abdomen once the cancer treatment was completed. The hope was that the transplanted ovarian tissue would begin producing hormones and even ripe eggs after it was returned to Dauer’s body. If ovulation could be restored, Dauer would be able to conceive and get pregnant normally.
Now, five years later, Annie Dauer is cancer free. And she’s a mom. Sienna Dauer was born in September 2005. “I just knew I could get pregnant, I just knew,” said Dauer. “I think I never allowed myself to think I could die.”