7 On Your Side Health Alert: Chemotherapy can cause premature menopause, infertility

Baby Gavin's mother, Mary Craige, froze her embryos prior to starting chemotherapy to treat breast cancer. (WJLA)

SPRINGFIELD, Va. (WJLA) – A new specialty is developing in the world of fertility preservation focused on female cancer patients.

Women are increasingly freezing their eggs and embryos before cancer treatment begins, because the treatment can cause premature menopause and infertility.

Mary and Jim Craige cherish every minute with their two boys. After their son Liam was born in 2009, the Craiges wanted to try for a second child immediately.

“We thought it would be as simple as the first time,” Jim Craige said.

But then, the unthinkable happened.

“I found a lump in my breast during a breast self-exam and I was diagnosed with breast cancer a month later,” Mary Craige said. “The first thing I said was, ‘I can’t have cancer, I have a 6-month-old.’”

Though some women don’t know it, chemotherapy can cause premature menopause.

“At 34, I was in full-blown menopause,” Mary Craige said.

Fortunately, her oncologist had advised her to look into fertility preservation before her cancer treatment began. Craige chose to freeze her embryos.

“Since she had a stable relationship, it’s usually better to freeze embryos; they have a higher pregnancy rate,” said reproductive endocrinologist Dr. David Saffron.

In 2010, doctors at Shady Grove Fertility Center extracted Craige’s eggs, inseminated them, and froze the embryos, which remained in the lab for three years. Once Craige’s oncologist gave her the go-ahead for pregnancy, her embryos were thawed and implanted.

“There [were] only two that survived, so they implanted both of them,” Mary Craige said. “That was the only shot that we had.”

Just nine days later, she took a home pregnancy test.

“I woke my husband up at 6 a.m. and said, ‘We’re pregnant!’” Craige said.

Dr. Saffan says successful pregnancies, involving cancer patients using frozen embryos, are becoming much more common.

“We do [a] pretty good number—certainly several monthly,” Dr. Saffan said.

Mary Craige has been cancer free for almost five years. With her son Gavin’s arrival, she says her family is complete.

“I’m healthy and we have a healthy baby,” she said. “He’s our miracle; we are very blessed to have him.”

Dr. Saffan says women need to act immediately when they’re diagnosed with cancer, because they typically only have a month or two to extract their eggs before their treatment begins. Though this process can be quite expensive, Mary Craige says their insurance covered half, and a non-profit called Fertile Hope helped with the cost of her medications.