Vianney Ferdinand was just 25 years old when she found a lump in her breast. “I was just home watching TV with my husband, and for some reason I just passed my hand through my chest and I felt it,” she recalled. Because of her age, her OBGYN assumed the 2-centimeter lump was just a cyst, but out of an abundance of caution, she sent Ferdinand for an ultrasound.
That ultrasound led to a needle biopsy, and that needle biopsy revealed that Ferdinand had breast cancer. “I was triple negative – BRAC positive, which means that it’s in my genes,” she explained, “So they told me that the chance of reoccurrence in my lifetime was about 80 percent.”
Ferdinand decided to have a bilateral mastectomy. She was told she would need to undergo weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, and these treatments might cause early menopause.
The combination of dealing with a cancer diagnosis and the potential loss of fertility were overwhelming for Ferdinand. “It was just like, come on, what else is going to happen? On top of having cancer, now I have to think about the possibility of not having [more] kids?”
But Ferdinand is not alone. Many woman who battle cancer, face the loss of their fertility. According to Dr. Drew Tortoriello, medical director for the Sher Institutes for Reproductive Medicine, nearly 70,000 women under the age of 20 are diagnosed with cancer every year.
Age is a large factor in fertility in general, and how that fertility is impacted by cancer treatment is no exception. The type of drugs used to treat the cancer is also a factor, but overall, the older the woman is, the less the likely it is that her fertility will not return. Tortoriello estimates that nearly 50 percent of women lose their ability to have children a few months after chemotherapy and radiation.
For many women, the only possibility of holding on to their fertility lies in a cycle of harvesting their eggs, scheduled in between the cancer diagnosis and the on-set of chemo and radiation treatment. And this safety net comes at a price.
“A cycle of IVF for the most part costs in the range of about $10,000 to $15,000. So it can be very cost prohibitive for people. Unfortunately, insurance is very, very hit or miss in terms of its coverage,” Tortoriello explains.
But Tortoriello and his colleagues at the Sher Institutes for Reproductive Medicine came up with a way to try to help. “Fertility Rescue is something that the physicians at the Sher Institute got together about maybe six months ago, and decided it was going to be our way of dealing with the infertility issue facing cancer patients…those who can never afford it, are actually going to be able to afford it because we are offering it essentially completely free.”
Vianney Ferdinand was the first patient to participate in the Fertility Rescue Program at the Sher Institutes for Reproductive Medicine.
After her bi-lateral mastectomy, but before beginning chemo and radiation, Ferdinand underwent a 10-day process to harvest her eggs and fertilize some of those eggs with her husband’s sperm. “They were able to retrieve 32 eggs, and from those 32 eggs they were able to freeze 16 embryos, and eight eggs, so I have them waiting for me,” she explained.
Most oncologists recommend that women wait two to five years before trying to conceive, either naturally or otherwise. Ferdinand is aware that there are no guarantees with fertility, but she is optimistic and plans to add to her family in a few years.
Because this program is so new, Tortoriello does not have any statistics on the Fertility Rescue Program producing children to cancer survivors, but he remains confident that he will be helping many women in the months and years to come.
Ferdinand remains ever grateful to Tortoriello and Sher Institutes for Reproductive Medicine, “He gave me the hope that I was missing…Giving me the opportunity to have children in the future is something that I’m going to be thankful for the rest of my life.”