‘My only other option to have further children’: Cancer patients rely on IVF to grow their families

When Kailani Greenwood was 20 years old, she went through treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. The therapy worked initially, helping her stay in remission for the next five years.

But then the cancer returned, requiring a harsher regimen of therapies this time around. And, Greenwood’s doctors told her, this meant she had another thing to worry about.

“I would require chemo, radiation and an extensive stem cell transplant, which my doctors informed me at that time would lead to infertility,” said Greenwood, now 31, who lives in Montgomery, Alabama. “It was a shock, because honestly I thought it was that one time and I would be done with it. But when it returned, it kind of threw a big curveball.”

Some cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation, can damage reproductive cells and organs. Doctors say fertility preservation – through freezing eggs, sperm or embryos – should be discussed with all young people with cancer, who then may have to rely on in vitro fertilization, or IVF, to have children.

“Some people can be even thrown into menopause by cancer treatments,” said Dr. Serena Chen, advocacy director at CCRM Fertility in New Jersey and a co-founder of the advocacy group Doctors for Fertility. “Everybody should have full access to that counseling information and the ability to do it.”

In Alabama, where a state Supreme Court ruling last month led three clinics to pause IVF treatments, cancer patients and survivors like Greenwood are concerned they’ll lose access to a crucial route to growing their families.

“This is a big way where a lot of women and families can have a lot of hope and love, persevere in a time where it’s honestly so vulnerable, and just kind of give families choice to pursue having a family one day,” Greenwood said.

Knowing that she wanted the option to become a mother, Greenwood decided to freeze her eggs before having the stem cell transplant. But, she recalled, she had to act quickly.

“You don’t have multiple times to try and try and try to harvest eggs,” she explained. “You actually have a very limited timeline because it’s delaying your care for cancer.”

Dr. Beth Malizia, who specializes in infertility and reproductive surgery and who became Greenwood’s doctor at Alabama Fertility Specialists, said situations like hers are “a very intense part of our treatment process.”

“We have lots of lots of patients that have many, many circumstances that lead them to need to seek our care urgently,” Malizia said. “But cancer is certainly one of the most urgent things that we see.”

The egg harvesting was successful, and five years later, in remission again after the stem cell transplant, Greenwood and her husband went through IVF to try to get pregnant. The process involves fertilizing eggs with sperm in a lab to create embryos; at least one is then transferred to a patient’s uterus.

“We actually were very lucky to be successful on our first embryo transfer,” Greenwood said. “And I’m happy to report that I’m currently 33 weeks pregnant with a healthy baby girl.”

Kailani Greenwood is 33 weeks pregnant. - Courtesy Kailani Greenwood
Kailani Greenwood is 33 weeks pregnant. - Courtesy Kailani Greenwood

Through IVF, multiple embryos are often created, and those that aren’t used immediately are frozen and stored for potential attempts at future pregnancies, or they’re donated or destroyed.

The Alabama Supreme Court ruling February 16 held that frozen embryos are children under the state’s 1872 Wrongful Death of a Minor Act, leading to legal uncertainty for IVF doctors and clinics around how embryos can be handled.

“It has been absolutely heartbreaking,” said Malizia, whose clinic was one of three in the state that paused IVF treatments in the wake of the ruling. “It’s been a horrible situation here in terms of figuring out what’s best for patients, which is the goal. We just want to grow families in Alabama.”

Greenwood and Malizia spoke with CNN on Tuesday, the day before advocates for IVF access convened in the state’s capital to urge lawmakers to pass protective legislation.

The state House and Senate passed bills Thursday that lawmakers said they aimed to have on the governor’s desk this week.

Greenwood said she has four more embryos stored with Alabama Fertility, and she wants more children.

“I plan to live in Alabama for the foreseeable future,” she said. “So when it comes time to have a second child – we’ve always wanted to have at least two, if not more – I will definitely pursue using the embryos that I currently have. … They’re kind of my only other option to have further children.”

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