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When Chemotherapy Saves Your Life, but Leaves You Infertile

When Kate Dobb was treated for an aggressive form of cancer at the age of ten, the prospect of being left infertile was never discussed. Now more women are demanding that doctors talk about reproductive health as part of the cancer conversation.
January 27, 2017, 8:00pm

When Becki McGuinness was diagnosed at the age of 21 with osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer, she was anxious about the impact treatment could have on her future fertility. "If I'd known then what I know now, I would have pushed further," she says, "but my concerns were brushed off by the doctors." Now 30 years old, and infertile as a result of the intensive chemotherapy that saved her life, McGuinness is campaigning to ensure all young cancer patients have access to the fertility options she was denied. "A fertility specialist told me later that there had been enough time to save my fertility before I started treatment, but I feel like [the cancer specialists] made the choice for me," she adds. "Being young and infertile is such a hard thing to take. There's no chance for me now; once you're infertile you can't go back." Cancer treatment, and particularly chemotherapy, can have this devastating impact on women like McGuinness because "the drugs are designed to kill cells which are dividing," explains Dr. Anne Rigg, a consultant oncologist at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital. "It affects your hair follicles, the cells in the lining of your cheeks and, for pre-menopausal women, your ovaries." The extent of the impact, she adds, will depend on the type of cancer, how aggressive your treatment is, and your age when you start treatment. "For a 25 or 35-year-old, it would be much less likely to cause infertility than in a 45-year-old, because they'll have younger ovaries which will be less damaged by chemo," Dr. Rigg says. "Not all chemotherapy drugs do affect fertility, but the cocktail of drugs used for cancers like lymphoma and sarcoma is particularly aggressive." Read more on Broadly