Young Breast Cancer Patients Fight to Stay Fertile After Chemotherapy

Lifesaving chemotherapy can push young patients into early menopause.

ByABC News
July 19, 2011, 11:50 AM

July 20, 2011— -- Carly Byrd's worst fear isn't dying from the cancer that has claimed both her breasts and invaded her immune system; it's that the treatment she needs to live might crush her dreams of having children.

Byrd is still battling for her life four years after she was first diagnosed with breast cancer at age 25. Despite multiple lumpectomies, a double mastectomy and radiation therapy, she now needs aggressive chemotherapy -- a cocktail of toxic drugs that causes her to lose her hair and appetite, and could rob her of her fertility, too.

"My oncologist told me there was a 30 percent chance that the chemo I had to have would toss me into early menopause," said Byrd, who said she has dreamed of being a mom her whole life. "When cancer and the procedures to treat it start taking real things away from you, it's a big pill to swallow."

Roughly 12 percent of breast cancer patients are under 45, but the chemotherapy they need to beat their illness can push them into early menopause. Cryopreservation, a procedure that freezes and stores eggs, embryos or ovaries until the cancer is gone, can help patients put motherhood on ice. However, it takes time, money and forethought -- all of which may be in short supply for women fighting for their lives.

But a new drug that suppresses ovarian function could help breast cancer patients preserve their fertility without delaying chemotherapy or breaking the bank, according to an Italian study. Patients who took triptorelin, an injectable gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) analogue, one week before chemo and every four weeks throughout their treatment were 17 percent less likely to experience early menopause than patients who did not. The results were published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"In comparison with cryopreservation strategies, GnRH analogue-induced ovarian suppression has the advantages that it does not require a male partner, is simple to administer, does not require delaying chemotherapy, and is less invasive and less expensive," Dr. Lucia Del Mastro, an oncologist at the National Institute for Cancer Research in Genoa, Italy, and colleagues wrote in their report.

The rate of early menopause was 8.9 percent in patients who took triptorelin, compared to 25.9 percent in patients who did not. The study authors, and authors of an accompanying editorial, suggest the drug could broaden the options for breast cancer patients who hope to have children.

For Byrd, who jumped through hoops to freeze 25 of her eggs a week before starting chemo, the option to preserve her fertility was empowering.

"I think that it just makes me the victor over cancer," she said. "It makes me feel very proud and very strong to cheat cancer out of preventing me from one of life's journeys. It's like, 'You can't take that, because I made sure of it.'"

Byrd traveled from her home in LaGrange, Ga., to the Sher Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Dallas for the procedure in order to fit it in before chemo, which meant ringing in her 29th birthday with multiple injections of hormone-disrupting, egg-harvesting drugs.

"That was not much fun," she said. But Byrd's mom, who moved from North Carolina to Columbus to take care of her, said, "At least you're spending your birthday with your future children."