Interview with Dr Raewyn Teirney: Breast Cancer Awareness & Fertility Preservation
For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, IVFAustralia’s leading fertility specialist, Dr Raewyn Teirney discusses how her passion as a fertility specialist evolved following her own journey with breast cancer, and the impact being a patient herself has had on her patient care.
What does Breast Cancer Awareness month mean to you?
Breast Cancer Awareness month is such an important initiative. It shares the message far and wide to women all around the world that they should care for themselves, and put their health as a priority by watching out for symptoms, ensuring regular checkups with their GP and not delaying mammograms if needed.
It’s very easy to do what I did and let a regular check- up mammogram slide for about 8 months – as a busy doctor working long hours, it was too easy for me to miss or ignore the initial signs and delay the mammogram appointments. I have a family history of breast cancer with my mother and grandmother being diagnosed and in the back of my mind I always knew I had to be vigilant and more careful. I did not feel a lump so when I was diagnosed with breast cancer I was still initially in shock and mad at myself. I was beating myself up for a while about not being vigilant.
I had a great breast surgeon and Oncologist and had the Full course of Chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy. It really felt like a rollercoaster for 18 months. Losing my hair was a low point!
The breast cancer treatment journey was difficult. Through my own cancer experience, I am an even more passionate advocate for early diagnosis of breast cancer, and encourage my patients not to delay when it comes to their health.
How did your personal journey with breast cancer impact your work as a fertility specialist?
I am a far more empathetic doctor, having been a patient myself who had to surrender in a sense to my own oncologists’ and specialists’ knowledge and care as I embarked on treatment. I can completely relate with my own patients who are facing infertility and put their trust into my treatment plan to help them conceive.
I also have such sympathy for young women having to go through chemotherapy – and as a fertility specialist, it really sparked my passion for increasing awareness and access to medical fertility preservation options. Many young women who are faced with a breast cancer diagnosis will need to think about their future fertility. There is hope for them.
And I hope to encourage GP’s, Oncologists – and even family and friends - to share these options with their patients or loved ones as early as possible in the diagnosis process.
What are the fertility preservation options for breast cancer patients facing oncology treatment?
There are many options depending on their individual circumstances, from freezing eggs, freezing embryos, freezing ovarian tissue or medications which may protect the ovaries from toxic chemotherapy drugs.
Freezing eggs can be a very quick process. If you have a patient who has recently been diagnosed with cancer, be sure to mention that this doesn’t mean their fertility has to come to an end – at IVFAustralia, we priortise cancer patients and can arrange to urgently see them the same day or the next day to give them all the information and support they need, and ensure they aren’t delayed in starting fertility preservation treatment before they begin chemotherapy.
At a glance, fertility preservation options for women include:
Women who undergo egg freezing have a stimulated IVF cycle, with egg collection, followed by the freezing of unfertilised eggs. These frozen eggs can be stored for many years.
Post cancer treatment, when a woman is ready to use her eggs, they are warmed (thawed) and then fertilised with sperm. Once an embryo has developed, it is then transferred into the woman's uterus hopefully resulting in a successful pregnancy.
Couples may choose to undergo an IVF cycle before undergoing cancer treatment, and to freeze resulting embyros for future fertility treatment (which may occur some years later).
Embryo freezing is a highly successful treatment option. As with a standard IVF procedure, women under the age of 38 at the time of egg retrieval will have a higher success in the future.
What’s changed in regards to fertility preservation options for cancer patients?
Certainly that we are better at freezing eggs, and the survival rates of eggs or embryos are far improved compared to even five years ago. Technology is constantly evolving, and success rates are getting better.
If you have patients who are facing oncology treatment, IVFAustralia can arrange an appointment within 24-48 hours. Patients will simply need a referral from their oncologist.
Learn more about Dr Raewyn Teirney
MB Chb(NZ) MM(RH&HG) FRANZCOG CREI