Infertility After Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer, Featured Article, Fertility, Healthy Living, Women's Health
on August 1, 2013

Courtney Bugler may have discovered the lump in her breast the way millions of other women do–during her morning shower–but there's nothing typical about her life since then. Jumping from an airplane at 14,000 feet. Learning to walk a tightrope like a circus performer. Singing, center stage, with a gospel choir.

And now, the 33-year-old is taking another leap. She and her husband, Alan, are chasing their dream of having a family, a dream that was interrupted by her breast cancer diagnosis in 2006 at age 29.

Having no family history of the disease, Courtney was shocked that the lump she found was malignant. After it was removed, she had her eggs harvested and frozen in case chemo left her infertile. "Because I had baby-making on the brain, I was very proactive," Courtney says.

But most women in her position, "cancer survivors in their childbearing years aren't," says Dr. Teresa Woodruff, a fertility expert at Northwestern University in Chicago. "Many of them are young people who haven't thought about having a family at all," Woodruff says. "It's difficult to think about the future when you're facing immediate thoughts of mortality."

Woodruff founded the Oncofertility Consortium, a national network of cancer and fertility experts, to change all that. The group is coming up with a protocol to help cancer doctors across the country counsel their patients about their fertility options, something that hasn't routinely been a part of discussions surrounding cancer treatment.

"The good news is that the conversation is now happening," Woodruff says. "It's better to think about it and make a proactive decision than have regrets later."

Courtney recently had her eggs implanted for the second time at Northwestern after having a miscarriage earlier this summer and, as of press time, was happily pregnant. The Buglers understand the risks–that the pregnancy may spark a cancer recurrence–and what that might mean. "It's quite possible that in two years, I could get cancer again, and this time I would have a 2-year-old," Courtney says. "Sometimes, I am afraid it's selfish of me to do that to a young child. But I have to do what's right for me now."

And that, in a way, explains her daring post-diagnosis feats. "Cancer reminded me that there are things to be afraid of. I lost the spring in my metaphorical step. I wasn't crazy, creative, vibrant, and I used to be," says Courtney, who recently left her career as a television writer to help other women navigate the post-diagnosis experience as executive director of the Young Survival Coalition's Atlanta affiliate. "I worked really hard to get back what I let cancer take from me, and feel like it's my duty to share my experience."