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No fertility help for young women with breast cancer

Charity says all younger women should be referred to fertility experts at diagnosis

Mark Gould

Friday, 21 November 2014

Most young women diagnosed with breast cancer do not receive fertility advice, despite the fact that chemotherapy can stop the ovaries working for a while, or may bring on an early menopause, and could leave them unable to have children.

The charity Breast Cancer Care, surveyed 170 women under 45, and found that just 12 per cent were offered a referral to a fertility expert to discuss implications and options. The charity says that if the findings of this small survey reflect women's experiences across the country, about 5,000 young breast cancer patients could be missing out on fertility care in the UK.

It says many women with cancer are unaware that infertility is a possibility when a woman who has not gone through the menopause has chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer.

Chemotherapy treatment can affect the functioning of the ovaries and reduce the number or quality of eggs available. But the chances of becoming infertile depend on the type of chemotherapy drugs used, the dose given and the age of the patient.

Chemotherapy can also cause a woman's periods to stop, but the younger the patient is when treated, for example under 35, the more likely they are to return.

Grete Brauten-Smith, Breast Cancer Care's clinical nurse specialist for younger women with breast cancer, said patients should be able to find out before treatment began whether freezing eggs or embryos was a viable option for them.

"A consultation with a fertility expert might not mean a guaranteed pregnancy, but we must ensure women have the chance of considering their options. Only then can they make an empowered decision about their future fertility," she said.

And in another small survey of 50 specialist breast cancer oncologists, surgeons and nurses by the charity, more than a third said they did not discuss the risks of treatment with young female breast cancer patients. A quarter (26 per cent) reported that they do not have a clear system set up to promptly direct patients to fertility clinics.

Breast Cancer Care chief executive Samia al Qadhi said this had to change. "This is an unacceptable situation as breast cancer is a disease which robs many women of a chance to start a family," she said. "We urgently need all healthcare professionals to talk to women about their fertility options at the point of diagnosis."

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