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Fertility procedure gives hope to young cancer patients

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For young people facing a cancer diagnosis there are side effects that may not be obvious. Chemotherapy presents some clearly visible side effects with hair loss being the one most commonly thought of. However, there are some which may not be realised until many years later, such as the damage treatment can inflict on a patient’s fertility.

While adults are sometimes able to store a sperm sample or freeze their eggs before treatment begins, it is far more difficult and unusual for children and young people to be able to do the same. Before the onset of puberty, boys do not actually produce any sperm which can be stored for them in later life. Although young girls are born with all the eggs they will ever have, the process of collecting these is incredibly invasive and time consuming in a situation where postponing treatment is often not an option.

A procedure first carried out in the UK in 2013 enables tissue samples from the ovaries or testicles to be harvested and stored should fertility be irrevocably damaged.

These factors have meant that survivors of childhood cancer may be left with damaged fertility and so are unable to conceive children of their own, regardless of how long ago their treatment was. However, this is now changing for many young cancer patients. A procedure first carried out in the UK in 2013 enables tissue samples from the ovaries or testicles to be harvested and stored should fertility be irrevocably damaged.

Known as ovarian or testicular cryopreservation, this non-invasive operation can be carried out in a number of days. Not only this, but the operation can often be conducted at the same time as having a Hickman line (the catheter used to administer chemotherapy) inserted. Recovery times are also minimal, with patients often not needing to stay overnight in hospital.

The incredible procedure allows the tissue to be implanted back into the patient in adult life. This protects their fertility and chance to start a family of their own, no matter how young they were when they received their diagnosis. This is a hugely important and life changing gain from the surgery, but much like the potential damage to fertility itself, there is another benefit that is less obvious.

Cryopreservation provides both the patient and family with hope. Hope that their consultant and team around them believe that they will be able to start a family. Hope that their cancer will not prevent them living a full life. And most importantly, hope that they will survive. All of this provides a huge boost to the morale of the patient and their loved ones at a time when they need it most. I speak from experience, as this operation allowed me to feel safe in the knowledge that my cancer diagnosis at 17 would not define my future.

I speak from experience, as this operation allowed me to feel safe in the knowledge that my cancer diagnosis at 17 would not define my future.

This procedure is now carried out thanks to the phenomenal efforts from the Future Fertility Trust, a charitable trust run from The John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, which aims to provide this service to any young person referred to them. Whist their aim is for this procedure to eventually be funded by the NHS, they are working to ensure no eligible young person is refused this opportunity due to funding. If you would like to help support the work of the Future Fertility Trust , please do visit their website where you can find all the details of their work and how to donate. 

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