With six children at home to care for, Shiela Johnston, 42, thought her diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma was devastating. The bad news didn’t end there, though. Two months later, in December 2012, Shiela’s oldest child, 16-year-old daughter Hailey, received the same diagnosis.

Lymphoma affects the lymph nodes throughout the body. Treatment to combat it involves the entire body. The most effective means of fighting their cancers meant both Dallas and North Carolina women were likely to become sterile as a side effect. Mother Shiela accepted this possibility but it left Hailey questioning her future.

One day when Hailey was playing with her baby sister, she realized how important it was to her to become a mother herself someday. After questioning her oncologist about her chance of fertility after cancer treatments, she was referred to Dr. Michelle Matthews, a fertility preservation specialist at Carolinas HealthCare System.

Matthews explained two possibilities to Hailey: egg cryopreservation or ovarian tissue cryopreservation. Hailey chose the latter.

Egg Cryopreservation
This procedure has been used for more than 20 years and is not considered experimental at this time. Patients must prepare their bodies with strong hormone-stimulating drugs for weeks or months before harvest. Some cancer patients can’t delay treatment long enough to harvest mature, usable eggs and the high-dose hormones required to do so may interfere with some cancer treatments or encourage growth of cancerous cells in the meanwhile.

Ovarian Tissue Cryopreservation
This newer procedure, which involves removal of part or all of an ovary, is still considered experimental in the US although it’s been used in Europe for several years. Only 30 babies have been born worldwide using this procedure, the first of which was born in Belgium in 2004.

Hormone stimulation isn’t needed for successful ovarian tissue cryopreservation so it doesn’t delay cancer treatments. Ovarian tissue can be harvested immediately, with no waiting for eggs to mature. The eggs and attached ovarian tissue can be thawed and matured in the future, as desired. For young girls who have not yet experienced puberty, ovarian tissue cryopreservation is the only option to preserve fertility.

According to the National Cancer Institute, as many as 70,000 Americans aged 15 to 39 are diagnosed each year with cancer. Many cancers require localized treatment that won’t affect fertility and children who undergo cancer treatments before puberty may overcome any fertility-threatening effects of treatment as they mature.

Young patients and their parents need to follow Hailey’s lead and ask their cancer care medical team about fertility preservation when cancer is diagnosed. Many oncologists routinely discuss the issue with their young patients but others do not. As Sheila says, “Those are my grandbabies!” and someday that might actually come to be but only because the right questions were asked at the right time.

Source: Garlock, Karen. “Charlotte-area teen freezes ovarian tissue to preserve fertility after cancer treatment.” Charlotte Observer. The McClatchy Company. Jan 5, 2014. Web. Jan 14, 2015.