When Cancer Impacts Fertility: A Personal Story

My name is Jenine and last year my world changed . . . for a second time.

Throughout a 3-year, serious relationship, I’d been honest about my personal health. I was diagnosed with cancer 12 years ago, and instinctively felt this would impact my fertility.

I didn’t know if I’d want to even try having a family until I met my fiancé. Our relationship flourished, quickly. Everything was perfect between us.

I was open from the start about my past, but as our relationship became more serious, I became increasingly worried about my ability to have children.

I am overly proactive, to a fault. Some of this probably stems from having been sick and developing a keen sense of responsibility and independence for myself. But when it came to fertility, I avoided seeking answers. In my heart, I always knew that this would be the second struggle in life I’d have to overcome.

My fiancé and I had been dating for two years when he convinced me to take the leap of faith by making an appointment with a fertility clinic. I went in for lab work to test my AMH levels (anti-mullerian hormone) and a few days later, returned for a consultation with a fertility doctor. Consistent with my prior disposition, I had a feeling the results would not be great. But no one could have prepared me for what we found out.

It was just days before my boyfriend’s birthday when we were leveled with the harsh reality of an AMH level of just 0.4. What did this even mean? I quickly learned that “my ovarian reserve was abnormally low for my age” or in other words, I likely didn’t have many viable eggs. The advice we received was more or less to not take our time on this one. I was advised to do IVF, but furthermore, to fertilize those eggs and make embryos, which meant committing to my boyfriend on a whole new level.

I remember driving home in a cab in NYC, crying that  “life is coming at me a mile a minute.”

The next few days were a blur. I had information to process and choices to make. Flashback to my teenage years, when my parents wielded the power of choice at the onset of my cancer treatment. They chose immediate treatment over egg-freezing, a decision I will never fault them for. Now, confronting my choice on how to deal with potential infertility, I was lost in a maze of emotion. Why did I have to struggle with this? Hadn’t I served my time? My father, a realist, reminded me that I was alive. Life became that much more treasured when I was faced with the struggle of how hard it is to bring life into this world.

We began our first round of IVF soon after getting my lab results. It was overwhelming to say the least. Different from my cancer treatment, I found myself financially responsible for this endeavor and calling all the shots. While this was terrifying, it was also somewhat liberating. Once I got the medications in hand, I began the 2-week process of poking and prodding each day with needles, a feeling that wasn’t foreign to me. Luckily, I was brave enough this time to do it by myself. After several mornings of monitoring and praying for normal growth, my retrieval day finally arrived. Both my parents showed up, like they had for every cancer treatment, and we hoped for the best. The doctors were honest with me about their expectations given my low AMH level.

They retrieved 8 eggs that day – not great, but not terrible given my circumstances. The next 4 days were arduous, as we impatiently waited to find out if any of the embryos would make it. In late afternoon I received a phone call at work that none of our embryos had survived. I was absolutely devastated and confused.

But, like with anything in life, I persisted.

I went to a different clinic for a second opinion, and completed a second round of IVF with them. We retrieved 10 eggs, 4 of which made their way into embryos and became our hope. These little possibilities of life freed us from the shackles of despair and allowed my fiancé and I to regain focus on ourselves. We still felt pressure to try and conceive, but committed to reprioritizing ourselves. We got engaged shortly after, and 9 months later, we will be married.

We decided to use the hope these little embryos gave us, as well as the possibility of conceiving naturally, to put fertility on the back burner.

It’s important that we allow ourselves to have a normal wedding process and celebrate our love for each other, rather than completely uprooting our lives and putting kids first.

This isn’t an easy decision. What if we never have a baby? But if not for the love my fiancé and I share, babies wouldn’t be so important to begin with. I am both excited and afraid of the future, but mostly I am hopeful, and that is because of our supportive community and the amazing doctors who are dedicated to making families possible for those of us that may have never had the chance.

Edited by: Cat Nunnery

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