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Archive for Monday, October 7, 2013

Once considered experimental, freezing eggs is giving women a way to have families after cancer treatment

October 7, 2013

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It's one of the cruelest paradoxes of some cancer treatments: Drugs and radiation capable of killing cancer cells and saving lives kill healthy cells as well.

For younger women with breast and other cancers, having their lives saved by chemotherapy or radiation can destroy the eggs inside their ovaries, which means losing their fertility.

One common solution available to women has been to freeze embryos, which can then be implanted in women after they've undergone treatment. But preserving embryos creates a labyrinth of dicey personal and ethical issues for women who are either without a long-term partner or have religious or moral qualms with the process of freezing embryos.

Now another option, freezing the egg itself, is becoming more widely available to women.

Until last year freezing eggs was considered an experimental treatment. An October 2012 report from the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, which stated that the procedure had been shown to produce healthy babies, helped clear the way for egg freezing to enter the mainstream.

Women who choose the treatment must take expensive fertility medications that release eggs from the ovaries. The process of extracting the eggs, which will then be stored in a freezer that uses liquid nitrogen, can take two weeks or more.

Samuel Kim, a doctor at Kansas University Hospital who works with reproductive endocrinology and infertility, said sometimes that is too much time for women with especially aggressive cancers that need chemo or radiation treatment as quickly a possible. For those women, they can have ovarian tissue frozen to try to preserve their fertility, but that is a newer and less tested option.

Women who have the time to go through the egg freezing process have a good chance of having a child later on, Kim said. He now offers it as the primary option for women trying to preserve their fertility when going into cancer treatment.

KU Hospital has frozen the eggs of about 10 women since 2011. None of the women have gotten to the point in their treatment and lives where they have borne children from those eggs, but Kim said as many as 2,000 to 3,000 babies worldwide have been conceived and born using frozen eggs.

"It's so successful now there's no reason not to offer egg freezing these days," Kim said.

The treatment isn't cheap, though. It can cost up to $9,000 at KU Hospital, plus the cost of fertility drugs, which can take it to $12,000. Kim said that's still cheaper than what women on the coasts will pay, and some women qualify for assistance through Lance Armstrong's LIVESTRONG foundation.

Still, it's a hefty cost and many insurance companies often don't cover it, though fertility presents a significant quality of life issue.

"It's a big issue for cancer patients," Kim said. "They didn't choose to be infertile. It's a side effect of treatment."

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