Fertility services give patients like Katie hope for their future families
When she was 21, everything Katie knew about Cincinnati Children’s came from her experience as a nursing student and patient care assistant in our Cancer and Blood Diseases Institute.
But she’d soon experience what it was like to be on the other side of the patient bed, fighting for her life.
It started with feelings of anxiety and a dull pain on one side of her head. At first, Katie thought she was just tired and stressed — after all, school and work kept her constantly busy.
A few days later, her condition worsened. The left side of her face and left hand went numb and she began slurring her speech. An MRI revealed that she had a 4-centimeter tumor — about the size of an egg — on her brain, nestled on her right temporal lobe.
Doctors immediately admitted Katie to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where they successfully removed the growth. Then came another devastating blow—the tumor was diagnosed as a glioblastoma multiforme, a fast-growing, aggressive brain cancer.
“The doctor didn’t need to explain. I knew it was bad,” she remembers, tears welling in her eyes. “I was only given 15 months to live.”
But there was something different about Katie’s tumor. Doctors discovered it was made up of a second component, called a primitive neuroectodermal tumor — a pediatric tumor. Finally, doctors were able to deliver some good news. The pediatric tumor was treatable, and her prognosis was good. That’s when she was referred to Cincinnati Children’s.
Suddenly, Katie was an adult patient on the oncology floor being cared for by former coworkers who had become friends. “I knew I was in good hands because I was here,” she smiles.
While treatable, Katie’s tumor still required her to go through rigorous cancer therapies. She would need radiation, chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. “I was scared about the treatment,” she confesses. “I remember reading over the risk factors. The one that bothered me the most was loss of fertility.”
Providing Hope for Future Families
Ever since she was a little girl, Katie dreamed of having kids of her own. And when she met her husband, Alex, they bonded instantly over their love for children and desire to have a family one day. “Knowing there was a good chance that I wouldn’t be able to experience the joys of pregnancy — it just crushed me,” she says softly.
The cancer program at Cincinnati Children’s is committed to providing world-class treatment and care for children and young adults with this devastating disease. That includes offering innovative programs and services that ensure every survivor continues to thrive long after their treatment has ended.
“Cure rates for pediatric cancer are pushing close to 90 percent,” explains John Perentesis, MD, director of the Division of Oncology and executive co-director of our Cancer and Blood Diseases Institute. “We want our patients to have a full and normal life.”
But cancer treatments can impact other parts of the body — like reproductive tissues and organs. Many pediatric patients survive cancer, but end up facing infertility when they reach adulthood. That can have a devastating impact on their happiness and overall well-being as they grow older.
But in many cases, infertility may be preventable.
That’s why Cincinnati Children’s created the Comprehensive Fertility Care and Preservation Program — a joint initiative with our cancer program and the Divisions of Pediatric Gynecology and Urology — to help support kids, teens and young adults throughout the fertility preservation process.
“Many families need to make decisions quickly before chemotherapy begins, and it’s kind of a blur for them,” Dr. Perentesis explains. “This highly organized team helps them navigate a very complex decision in the midst of a chaotic time.”
From the day she was diagnosed, Katie only had two weeks to process what was happening before she started treatment — many have even less time. She was grateful to be able to quickly consult with our experts and learn about the risks of treatment and her options for fertility preservation.
Together, Katie and her care team determined that her best option was tissue cryopreservation. The procedure involves removing one ovary and freezing it at a very low temperature. Katie’s doctors were able to successfully perform the procedure before she started her cancer treatment.
Innovating Care From Diagnosis to Survivorship
Cincinnati Children’s has consistently been at the forefront of cutting-edge care and treatment options for kids battling cancer — and our fertility services are no exception.
“When chemotherapy was more challenging, everything else went to the wayside and our focus was on cure alone,” Dr. Perentesis shares. “Over the past several years, that focus has broadened to include innovative ways to help kids live a high quality of life after cancer. Fertility is one of the most important aspects of that.”
Our collaborative team has comprehensive consultation tools that help educate and support families through the decision-making process. These materials are the first of their kind, and research has shown that their use can have a tremendous impact on cancer patients.
“Our program offers comprehensive fertility services that begin the day a child is diagnosed with cancer,” explains Lesley Breech, MD, director of the Division of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology. “Our shared decision-making model provides patients and families with the support they need to determine the best way to move forward.”
This integrated approach has garnered international attention, and it’s changing the standard of care for fertility services for children, adolescents and young adults all over the world.
Many patients like Katie are relieved to learn that they have options that can help ensure their ability to have a family of their own later in life.
“More than 90 percent of eligible children and teens diagnosed with cancer here at Cincinnati Children’s receive fertility consultation — the highest percentage of any pediatric program in the nation,” Dr. Breech shares. “Our program provides services for both boys and girls, many of which are new technologies that are only offered at a handful of centers across the country.”
In fact, we’re one of only a few pediatric medical centers in the nation to offer an experimental procedure for boys before they reach puberty, called testicular tissue freezing. For young boys being treated for cancer, this new fertility service may be their only chance at fathering children of their own one day.
Donors Are Changing Lives
While fertility preservation provides hope for kids facing cancer treatment, many families simply can’t afford it. Fertility services are not covered by most insurance companies and are an out-of-pocket expense for families already in the midst of a medical crisis.
That’s why the Junior Co-Operative Society stepped up to help. They operate both of Cincinnati Children’s gift shops, where all proceeds are donated back to the medical center. This year, they’re dedicating $85,000 to help pay for fertility preservation procedures and storage fees, so that more families can afford to give their child a chance to have kids of their own.
“As parents, we want our children to have as many choices in life as they can,” says Cindy Burger, president of the Junior Co-Operative Society. “Cincinnati Children’s gives kids with cancer a fighting chance to one day be a parent, and we’re honored to support that mission.”
While the generosity of the Junior Co-Operative Society is integral to helping children at risk of infertility, additional funding is necessary to continue advancing our work.
Support from donors will allow us to drive new discoveries, influence the international standard of care, establish a dedicated laboratory for fertility services and help reduce the financial burden of fertility preservation for more families.
“We’re really proud of the resources we’re putting into this,” Dr. Perentesis shares with a notable hint of excitement. “It really impacts children and young adults in extraordinary ways.”
Together, we’re helping patients like Katie thrive and live happy, vibrant lives after cancer.
Making Katie’s Dream a Reality
Now, at 24 years old, Katie has been cancer-free for three years. And the world-class care she received has given her something more — hope. She and Alex were married in August, and thanks to the experts at Cincinnati Children’s, they can still look forward to a future full of possibilities.
“I’m so excited to start my own family someday, hopefully soon,” Katie says. “I couldn’t be more grateful for the life-saving care I received, and the fact that Cincinnati Children’s gave me the chance to experience childbirth and continue to live my dreams.”
To learn more about helping kids facing infertility, please contact Ashley Rich at 513-803-6593 or firstname.lastname@example.org.