The diagnosis of cancer is often unexpected, and young people who want to have children can be faced with the prospect of sudden infertility.
That’s the position Lindsay Nohr Beck found herself in. In her early twenties, Beck survived two rounds of cancer. When she was diagnosed the second time, she also learned that the chemotherapy might destroy her ability to conceive children. Two weeks after the diagnosis, Beck froze 29 of her eggs at the Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility Center of Stanford University’s Medical Center. The eggs could be thawed at a later date and implanted in her uterus (or a surrogate mother’s uterus) to allow her to have children.
Freezing eggs or embryos typically costs $8,000 to $12,000, plus an additional $3,000 for the necessary medicine. Often insurance companies will not cover the cost for cancer patients because they do not yet meet the criteria for being considered infertile, such as trying unsuccessfully to conceive for a year.
Stanford Medical Center offers financial assistance for qualifying patients. Beck’s out-of-pocket expense was $5,000.
Inspired by that experience and aware that she was not the only one in her situation, that year Beck started Fertile Hope, which helps meet the needs of people faced with infertility caused by medical conditions. The non-profit organization provides information to cancer patients and raises public awareness about fertility options for cancer patients.
Now a new program, Sharing Hope is offering financial assistance for fertility treatments. The program does not provide money directly to qualifying cancer patients. Instead, Fertile Hope has partnered with other organizations to provide donated and discounted services.
The Lance Armstrong Foundation is providing financial support for the administration of Sharing Hope. Serono Inc., a pharmaceutical company, is donating free fertility drugs to qualifying patients. Eighteen fertility clinics in thirteen states are offering their extraction and storage services at a reduced rate. The total cost for the patient is about half what it would be otherwise.
Women who choose to freeze either eggs or embryos will take drugs that stimulate their ovaries to produce multiple eggs. A doctor will then remove the mature eggs from the woman’s body. If the woman is single and doesn’t wish to use donor sperm, the eggs are frozen for potential future use. This process is newer and more experimental than in vitro fertilization (IVF). In IVF, after harvesting the eggs, the doctor fertilizes the eggs with sperm from a partner or donor to create embryos before freezing or implanting. The procedures take from two to six weeks to complete.
Men can choose to freeze their sperm at participating clinics at a reduced cost.
Although the process of in vitro fertilization has been around for about 30 years, it is by no means a guaranteed way to have children. Not all the frozen eggs or embryos survive the freezing and thawing process. Pregnancy rates using previously frozen embryos or eggs are around 25% for infertile women, but the number of cancer survivors who have gotten pregnant from the procedure is too limited to give accurate statistics.
The process of freezing eggs and embryos is still risky for the patient. The drugs that stimulate egg production may lead to health problems, including cancer, in the future.
However, for people facing possible infertility from cancer, this program offers them more hope. Beck commented, “In my eyes cancer wasn't permanent; it was a hurdle to clear. Infertility was permanent and something I wasn't sure I could deal with.” Now cancer patients may not have to face that possibility.