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Video: Fertility after cancer

TODAY contributor
updated 9/6/2007 2:20:28 AM ET 2007-09-06T06:20:28

When Lindsay Nohr Beck was facing cancer treatments as a young woman of 24, she asked a question that oncologists weren’t accustomed to hearing and didn’t know how to answer: Would intensive chemotherapy make her infertile?

From that simple query has come her foundation, Fertile Hope, a resource for women fighting cancer who want to become mothers.

“When Lindsay said, ‘I want to get pregnant some day,’ not only did I not know anything about it, I wasn’t particularly interested in that goal,” Dr. Nancy Snyderman, TODAY’s Chief Medical Editor and Beck’s physician told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira. “So it was one of those times when the patient and the doctor are on very, very different wavelengths.”

That was some six years ago, when Beck was a young and single woman just starting out on a professional career. She had had cancer of the tongue when she was 22 and thought radiation treatment had conquered it. But it returned two years later, spreading to her lymph nodes. Snyderman recommended surgery that removed nodes and 30 percent of her tongue along with intensive chemotherapy.

“Talking as a doctor I don’t want to sacrifice Lindsay’s life right now for something she might want to do five or ten years down the line,” Snyderman explained.

But Beck saw it differently. “To me, cancer was temporary,” she told Vieira. “I thought I could get through it. Infertility was permanent, and so that’s where I concentrated my energy.”

At the time, there weren’t any obvious options because fertility doctors and cancer doctors didn’t trade notes on the topic.

“Every door was closed,” Beck said. “No one knew anything. The cancer world didn’t know about fertility and the fertility world didn’t know about cancer.”

Beck did what young, techno-savvy people do: she went on the Internet and conducted her own investigation. Just weeks before her chemotherapy was to begin, she learned that an experimental program at Stanford University could harvest her unfertilized eggs and freeze them.

It is one of several options now available to cancer patients. For men, sperm freezing is a long-established technique. For women, freezing eggs or ovarian tissue are options, although both are experimental. Embryos can also be frozen, but Beck did not see that as an option in her case; she was single without a partner and didn’t want to use donated sperm.

Beck survived the treatment and three years ago married Jordan Beck. Two years ago, she learned she was pregnant after an in vitro fertilization procedure that used a fresh egg from her body; the frozen eggs in her case had not been needed. Last June, the Manhattanite gave birth at the age of 29 to 7-pound, 9-ounce Paisley Jane Beck.

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Spreading the word
Through Fertile Hope, she is giving other women the information and hope that no one could give her. “Our mission is really simple,” Beck said. “We help cancer patients. Our goal is to make sure every patient is informed and then help them to make decisions.”

Snyderman praised Beck for doing what the medical profession hadn’t thought to do. “She linked scientists to scientists,” Snyderman said, introducing oncologists to fertility experts.

And Beck changed the way the doctor looks at the disease she treats and the patients who have it.

“For her, cancer was just a speed bump,” Snyderman said of Beck. “Her goal was to become a mom, and I was just getting in her way. So we negotiated and came up with a way to treat her.”

Now, Snyderman says that patients have to take charge. “They have to ask their doctor, ‘Will this medicine make me infertile?’ It’s the questions that patients don’t know how to ask,” she said.

Vieira asked Snyderman what advice she would give women today who are told that chemotherapy will mean they can’t have their own children.

“Don’t take no for an answer,” she said.

Asked the same question, Beck replied: “Freeze your eggs.”

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