By Melanie Macleod, patient
In 2011, I was a 36 year-old married mother of a 4-year-old daughter, with a family history of breast and ovarian cancer. After a routine mammogram, I got the phone call no one wants to receive. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I would soon find out that I also tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation.
Inheriting this gene means that I have a greatly increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. I was devastated to learn I had cancer. I was heartbroken to think that I may have passed this gene on to my beautiful daughter. Dealing with my cancer diagnosis was traumatizing enough, but the mental and emotional burden of worrying if my daughter would have the same fate as me, was all too much to bear.
But precious time was ticking away before chemo had to start. I needed to prepare my mind and body for what was to come. I was told that at my age, there was a strong likelihood that chemo could force my body into a permanent state of menopause.
At my very first oncologist meeting, when the oncologist learned that we still wanted to have children, she said, “I think you need to call Dr. Hinckley at Reproductive Science Center.” My husband called right then and the staff at RSC understood our urgency and quickly got us an appointment.
So on top of preparing myself for my lumpectomy and chemotherapy, we met with Dr. Mary Hinckley to devise a plan to preserve my fertility. This amazing person would change our lives forever.
Surgery first, fertility preservation second
During my first exam, Dr. Hinckley discovered two large cysts covering my ovaries. We were very worried this could be the onset of ovarian cancer and I could end up losing my ovaries. Preserving my fertility was now on hold, as surgery was needed.
In the end, two benign cysts were removed. In addition, my fallopian tubes were taken out as a preventative measure, upon learning that ovarian cancer could originate in the tubes. Being that I am BRCA, this was an extra step to help protect me from developing ovarian cancer. My ovaries were saved.
With two surgeries completed, I had just enough time to preserve my fertility before chemo had to begin. Dr. Hinckley was able to freeze only three embryos. Though three wasn’t a lot, we still had hope. It was now time for chemo.
Chemotherapy was awful! I was physically ill from the drugs, but also emotionally sick that it was robbing me of precious time with my young daughter. But, I still did everything I could to maintain a normal life for my child, while at the same time overcoming this medical obstacle. It was challenging at times, but my amazing daughter inspired me, motivated me and provided me with the unconditional love I needed to get through this difficult period.
Following chemo, due to being BRCA, I opted to have a bilateral double mastectomy with DIEP flap reconstruction (tissue from the abdomen is used). The eight-week recovery was intense and it seemed like an eternity, but I was extremely happy with the results of my surgery.
Removing my breast tissue was an empowering moment for me. I never wanted to suffer from breast cancer again. In 2011, cancer once controlled me, now I was taking back control of my future health.
Only one egg, but it was a fighter
In 2013, after being cancer free for two years, my husband and I elected to do a second egg retrieval to increase our odds of having a successful pregnancy. In vitro fertilization (IVF) remained our only hope. After chemo, it was clear that my egg supply was depleted and most of my remaining eggs were weak and unable to grow.
But, there was one egg in the second retrieval that was strong and growing properly. It was a fighter. Despite going through chemo with me, this egg ultimately turned out to become the only viable embryo from both retrievals. We had only one shot to attempt a pregnancy.
Later that year, my husband and I received another phone call that changed our lives. We were pregnant! On September 9th, 2014, our healthy baby boy Ryan was born.
As awful as the past few years were, I refused to quit on myself, my family or my future offspring. The story of my son being born highlights my decision to not just survive, but to be proactive and to persevere.
I am forever thankful to my family and friends, to my amazing daughter and my unbelievably devoted husband for taking care of me and providing me with the love and support I needed. Thanks to Dr. Hinckley and her dedicated staff, the whole experience at Reproductive Science Center was so great. Every time I went in there I was incredibly grateful for their support and skill. I love them all.
My story does not end here. By the end of the year I will remove my ovaries to eliminate my risk of developing ovarian cancer. Although I dread surgically induced menopause, I will continue to maintain the same level of strength and optimism. I will always be eternally grateful to my phenomenal team of doctors who have made my future years possible and who have given me the most wonderful miracle—my son.