"You have cancer."
"Your wife has cancer."
"Your daughter has cancer."
The words are chilling. Even terrifying. They trigger such terror, it's hard to hear anything that comes after the word "cancer." It can feel as though the word itself eclipses everything else, and that the diagnosis is synonymous with imminent death. And yet, medical researchers and clinicians have teamed up to make an increasing number of cancers survivable, even curable. So as more and more adolescent girls and women survive—and even thrive—after receiving cancer diagnoses and treatments, their hopes and dreams are increasingly turning to the quality of their post-cancer lives, including fertility and having children.
When "Annika" was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 25, in 1997, survival was foremost in her mind. Luckily, her hometown of Brussels, Belgium hosts a pioneering clinic that has been on the forefront of fertility preservation in cancer patients for nearly 20 years. Recently, a team of doctors from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) travelled to Brussels to gain the expertise they'll need to establish a similar program at BWH, in partnership with Children’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
At the Catholic University of Louvain, in Brussels, Belgium, Dr. Jacques Donnez leads a devoted team of clinicians and scientists who are pioneering ovarian tissue cryopreservation. In 1997, before Annika began her cancer treatments, Dr. Donnez’s team removed some of her healthy ovarian tissue and froze it for long-term storage. By the time her chemotherapy treatments were completed, she was infertile.
In 2003, Dr. Donnez’s team successfully reimplanted Annika’s cryopreserved ovarian tissue that they had removed six years earlier. Five months later she began ovulating again, and eleven months after reimplantation she became pregnant via natural fertilization. In 2004, she became the first woman in the world to give birth to a healthy baby after reimplantation of her own cryopreserved ovarian tissue.
Dr. Catherine Racowsky, director of the assisted reproductive technologies laboratory at BWH and Professor at Harvard Medical School, envisions achieving similar medical milestones here at BWH. On their recent trip to visit Dr. Donnez’s clinic, the BWH team observed ovarian tissue harvesting and re-implantation procedures, and learned and practiced laboratory protocols alongside Dr. Donnez’s team for freezing and thawing ovarian tissue, and isolating follicles from this tissue for growth in the laboratory. Reflecting on the trip, Dr. Racowsky said, “We are committed to establishing Brigham and Women’s as the premier site for fertility preservation in our country. In order to achieve this mission, we felt it was crucial to visit the world’s most successful ovarian tissue cryopreservation group given the novel nature of these procedures.
In addition to Dr. Racowsky, the BWH team that travelled to Belgium included Dr. Elizabeth Ginsburg, medical director of assisted reproductive technologies at BWH and Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School; Dr. Antonio Gargiulo, director of robotic reproductive surgery at BWH and Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School; and Dr. Sara Barton, clinical fellow in reproductive endocrinology at BWH.
Philanthropic support for a BWH fertility preservation center could help restore the hopes and dreams of girls and women coping with cancer diagnoses. To learn more about bringing fertility preservation to BWH, contact Kim Lubin in the BWH Development Office at email@example.com
or at 617-424-4223.