Breast cancer lesson number four: the time to have that awkward conversation is now!

I love science. I still find it hard to understand exactly how planes stay in the air after take-off – and I have never really found a way of incorporating the periodic table into daily life – but, when it comes to the science of fertility, I am in awe.

The fertility question is an interesting one when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Talking about life after cancer, before you’ve even started the fight may seem strange. But, you know what, it wasn’t the possibility of dying that came into my mind when I first heard the news (the doctors have got that bit covered). It was the thought that the choice to have children may be taken away from us – before we even walk down the aisle. Having babies is all about the next chapter – after this rather unfortunate obstacle is but a distant memory. What is life about if it isn’t about hoping and dreaming – and making sure that next chapter is a chapter worth fighting for!

My advice to all women in the future who find themselves in this unenviable position is, just ask. After all, if you don’t ask… The last thing you want is to be sitting with a cannula in your arm being fed chemo drugs and knowing that those drugs might just be the ones to take your fertility away (and there’s no back-up plan). Having started my periods at the age of 10 (my primary school friends will remember me missing swimming lessons every two weeks for six months, which I put down to a strange-but-frequent illness), it would be a cruel twist of fate to have the hot flushes start at 32!

I promised my family that I wouldn’t do anything that would delay my treatment or risk my health. On surgery planning day (see lesson three), I explained (with a heavy heart) to the surgeon that I didn’t want to attend my assisted conception appointment if it meant that I would start out on a journey I wouldn’t be able to finish. At this point, the surgeon laughed and said: ‘Jackie, if you think we’re going to let you do anything that would risk your recovery, you’ve got another thing coming.’ That certainly told me who was boss!

The great news is, if you ask early on, and you are lucky enough to have time (I know this is unfortunately not an option for some women and other cancers), it can become just another part of your care pathway.

So, within days (thank you amazing NHS), I was sat next to anxious looking couples in the fertility clinic waiting to talk about freezing eggs and embryos (I’d already done plastic surgery and boob jobs in the same week, so why not?).

This is where the amazing science comes in. IVF involves exposing the body to high levels of oestrogen. The trouble is, my lovely lump quite likes oestrogen and is being fed by the stuff – the very thing my ovaries need. The solution? Pump my body with cancer drug Letrozole, which will try and protect the breast from the effects of oestrogen while stimulating the ovaries just enough to get those eggs going. In short, two weeks after surgery, two lots of drugs are going to have to have a scrap inside me! Let’s hope I don’t have to join in!

I came away from the fertility clinic truly humbled (and a little bit violated – but I won’t go there)! The biggest smile of my day, however, came from the pharmacist, who was confused as to why I was only being prescribed a small number of Letrozole pills. He was trying to be discreet in the waiting room and asked me to justify the prescription (as if I’m the doctor!). Having tried to skirt around the subject so as not to disturb other patients, I ended up saying: ‘Look, I’ve got cancer, I want babies, these drugs will let them pump me with hormones post surgery so I can try for babies, and then I can have chemo. Is that ok?’ I think I may have over-shared to both the pharmacist and the entire waiting room. After that, I think he would have prescribed anything just to stop me talking!

Of course, it takes two to make an embryo. What’s the last thing any man wants to hear a few weeks after proposing: ‘Um, would you donate some of your manhood towards the greater good?’ Just need to make sure he signs the consent forms now before the next appointment!

 

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