Sarah’s Story: Cancer, IVF and Fertility

20 Aug 2021

Sarah was 29 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a shock to her, as was having to consider her future fertility at such a young age. In the midst of her diagnosis, while planning to start chemotherapy, it was suggested that she see a fertility specialist about the impact of treatment and the possibility of IVF.

As Sarah and her husband wanted to start a family in the future, they discussed the possibility of infertility and decided that they wanted to look into freezing some of their embryos. After discussion with various health professionals (and bringing lots of questions to their meetings) the decision was easy for them, as the cost was affordable, and her oncologist said chemotherapy could be delayed one cycle.

In preparation for IVF, Sarah had to start injecting herself with hormones daily to boost her ovulation. She had heard this could affect your mood in the same way the increase in hormones does with PMS, though she said she wasn’t too badly affected. Sarah found the egg retrieval painful, leaving her sore for a couple of days, but resulted it in the formation of 5 embryos. Sarah found this disappointing as she had expected more to develop, but the hormone injections can stimulate ovaries in varying levels in different people.

A few weeks after she finished her treatment, she fell pregnant naturally despite her situation, that year giving birth to her daughter, Mikayla. This is when Sarah became curious about the genetics of breast cancer and whether she carried the associated gene mutations. She contacted Peter MacCallum, a well renowned cancer centre, about genetic testing.

She found out she carried a BRCA1 mutation, one that is associated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. This discovery led Sarah to consider surgery as a permanent means of reducing her genetically increased risk. She decided to have a bilateral mastectomy and to begin planning for another baby to complete their family before she had her ovaries removed. She had less luck in conceiving a baby naturally this time and turned to her fertility specialist for help in implanting her IVF embryos. At this stage Sarah and her husband discussed the possibility of PGD. They decided against it for various reasons, one being they didn’t feel it fair to give a BRCA1-free option to one child and not to have given it to the other. 

They went forward with IVF and much to Sarah’s surprise, of the 5 embryos that were frozen, only 2 survived the thawing process. The implementation did not succeed, but soon after Sarah became naturally pregnant again, giving birth to Jackson that year.

Sarah’s experience came with some valuable insights. Statistics are just statistics, and you can land at either end of the scale, as shown when 3⁄4 embryos are supposed to thaw effectively, and less than half of Sarah’s did. She was lucky that her cancer was triple negative, as some other hormone positive cancers may not be able to receive the hormone boosts needed for IVF, all situations are different. Sarah had good counselling through the IVF centre that helped her consider all her options, down to what to do with embryos when they are no longer needed. Her IVF costs were affordable at $800, but others had experiences ranging from no charge to $9,000, so it is worth looking around and asking the direct cost in every consultation. To talk to other people in similar situations, Sarah used online support groups and forums to connect with others and found it informative and supportive. She suggests the BCNA fertility resource as a good overview of information, but highlights that it does not replace professional medical advice.

Despite her fertility and IVF struggles, Sarah was happy she went through with IVF. She says it gave her hope while she was going through treatment, and she believes the hormones and drugs she took for IVF and implantation helped her to fall pregnant naturally on both occasions. Sarah said she has come across many women who had been through breast cancer and regretted not considering IVF, and she is glad she doesn’t have that regret.

Though IVF may not be for everyone, she strongly suggests for all women of childbearing age to discuss their options with a fertility specialist prior to starting chemo.