Fertility

Egg freezing an option for cancer patients

 

bmedina@elNuevoHerald.com

It has been all over the news in recent months.

Celebs such as Sofía Vergara, 40, and Jennifer Love Hewitt, 34, are trying to preserve their fertility by freezing their eggs.

But while some women do it while they’re looking for a mate or building their careers before starting a family, another group of women who can benefit from freezing their eggs are cancer patients of childbearing age.

Cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation, can cause side effects that can lead to infertility. As a result, younger cancer patients should be given the option of freezing their eggs first, said Dr. Marcelo Barrionuevo, a fertility specialist with Baptist Health System.

In fact, Barrionuevo suggested that fertility preservation should be part of the pre-treatment discussion for female cancer patients.

“Because of the great advancement and early diagnosis and early treatment of cancer, we now see higher survival rates, especially among women in their 30s and 40s,” Barrionuevo said. “That is the reason why it is important to ask the patient if they want to preserve their fertility.”

Too many times, he said, patients come to him to talk about egg freezing after they have gone through cancer treatment, which reduces their chances of becoming pregnant, as the eggs have been affected by chemotherapy or radiation.

“They have to see a fertility specialist as soon as they are diagnosed with cancer,” he said. “If they are qualifying candidates for the procedure and decide to go on with it, early consultation gives patients the chance to freeze their eggs without delaying cancer treatment.”

How it works

It takes four to six weeks to complete the egg freezing cycle. Initially, the patient undergoes a hormone-injection process similar to that of in-vitro fertilization.

“The hormone injections send a strong signal to the ovaries to ripen multiple eggs,” Barrionuevo said.

Once the eggs have matured sufficiently, they are removed through a non-painful procedure: The patient is sedated, a suctioning needle is inserted through the vagina and into the ovary. Using ultrasound guidance, the medical expert extracts the eggs from the ovaries and immediately flash freezes them.

The eggs can stay frozen for several years, until the patient is out of the risk period and ready to attempt pregnancy, Barrionuevo said. The eggs are then thawed, injected with sperm for fertilization and placed in the uterus as embryos.

Costly procedure

Egg freezing, however, can be a costly option, especially when added to the cost of cancer treatment. Reports show that in the United States it can cost $8,000 to $18,000 to preserve a patient’s eggs. That cost includes an annual charge for storage in an egg bank for an undetermined number of years.

But there are options for cost coverage as well, Barrionuevo said. “For cancer patients, there are foundations and special programs that can help pay part of the cost of the treatment,” he said.

But egg freezing won’t work for every cancer patient. The age of a woman’s eggs and the stage of her cancer have a lot to do with whether it will be successful.

“If a woman is in the later stages of cancer, she is probably not a qualified candidate,” Barrionuevo said.

A committee with the American Society for Reproductive Medicine noted in a October 2012 report that success rates appear to decline with maternal age. The best time to freeze eggs is when a woman is in her 20s or 30s.

Regardless, Barrionuevo said cancer patients should have the opportunity of at least considering the option.

“Every patient should be asked the question: ‘Are you a candidate?’ ” he said. “They should know that option exists.”

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