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Pregnancy after breast cancer treatment rare, possible

4:41 AM, Oct 23, 2013   |    comments
Nathan, Kayla, Jessica and Andrew Hicks of Muncie, Ind. (Photo: Gannett/The Muncie (Ind.) Star Press)
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Not every woman who goes through treatment for breast cancer ends up as lucky as Jessica Hicks.

In fact, Hicks knows all too well from her online breast cancer support group how rare it is for someone who has gone through chemotherapy to get pregnant afterward with no difficulty - in Hicks' case, unexpectedly, less than a year after finishing treatment.

But back before her treatment began, Hicks got the same warnings from doctors that any woman of child-bearing age would; if she wanted to have children later, she should consider backup measures such as having her eggs frozen first.

Having babies after being treated for breast cancer is "fairly rare," according to Peter Voss, an ob/gyn with Voss Center for Women in Muncie, Ind.

If the cancer is such that it can just be treated by surgery, that wouldn't have an effect on the patient's ovaries. Chemotherapy and radiation, however, can affect the ovaries, putting them "temporarily or more likely permanently out of the picture," Voss said.

Depending on the dosage and the patient's age, the effects can be temporary or permanent, Brown said. The older a premenopausal woman is at the time of cancer treatment, the greater the odds of suffering infertility afterward, she added. At age 35, the cessation of menstrual periods during and after cancer treatment might be temporary, but by age 45, the risk of never getting periods again is greater.

With that in mind, when a woman is learning about recommended treatment for cancer, she is asked if she intends to bear children later, and if so is told about the risks and options, notably the possibility of having eggs harvested in advance and frozen in a cryobank for future in-vitro fertilization.

"All that is done up front," before launching treatment, Brown said.

Hicks, who lives in Muncie, was already the mother of one child - Kayla, born in 2000 - by the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She dismissed the idea of having another when asked before beginning her cancer treatment.

Her husband had survived a serious heart attack the same year that she learned of her cancer - 2009 - so she decided that trying for another child wouldn't be such a good idea. Besides, the couple had already tried unsuccessfully years earlier to have another baby, but when they didn't conceive, they "kind of just left it at that because we already had one child."

After finishing breast cancer treatment, Hicks was considering a hysterectomy in response to an abnormal pap smear, but then decided that, at age 33, she wasn't quite ready to take that step. Just a couple of weeks after having backed off from that prospect, however, her body "started feeling different." Though she felt silly about doing so, Hicks took a pregnancy test just in case and discovered that she was unexpectedly pregnant with "my surprise miracle," despite having finished chemotherapy only about nine months earlier.

According to information from the American Cancer Society, doctors might recommend a woman wait up to five years after treatment before trying to get pregnant, since the chances of cancer recurrence are highest during those first two to five years.

Other options listed by the American Cancer Society include embryo donation from someone else, having a surrogate mother or adoption.

With Hicks' pregnancy monitored closely throughout for possible problems from the drugs she had been taking for cancer, she nonetheless gave birth with no problems to Andrew, who is now a busy, always-on-the-go 2-year-old.

Referring to the stories she sees from would-be mothers in her online support group, Hicks said, "It's really sad that something most people just take for granted, that they (some survivors) are wanting so badly, and they have to wait because of breast cancer ... I know how blessed I am, and I don't take it for granted."

Robin Gibson, Muncie (Ind.) Star Press

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