Every year around 70,000 young adults are diagnosed with cancer, and many of them will undergo treatments that will make them infertile, according to Critical Mass: The Young Adult Cancer Alliance.
The patients who are able to see a fertility specialist before their therapy begins, discover that the process of collecting sperm is easy and inexpensive, but according to the Alliance for Fertility Preservation, retrieving eggs costs between $10,000 and $15,000. These services are not usually covered by insurance companies, and because of financial and time constraints, many patients aren’t able to take these steps to preserve their fertility.
However, grassroots advocates like breast cancer survivor Melissa Thompson and Dr. Eden Cardozo, a reproductive specialist at Women and Infants Fertility Center in Providence, Rhode Island, have helped draft bills and testified before state legislatures about the importance of creating laws to make coverage mandatory. Now, insurance carriers are required to cover fertility preservation for cancer patients in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, Maryland, and Illinois.
In January 2018, six months after the Rhode Island bill passed, 22-year-old Thomeeka Speaks was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (also known as acute lymphocytic leukemia) and referred to Women and Infants Fertility Center.
Thomeeka talked with HealthCentral about her diagnosis, her experience retrieving eggs, and her hopes of becoming a parent.
HealthCentral (HC): How were you diagnosed with leukemia?
Thomeeka: It was at the end of 2017 and I was working as a social worker, doing parent education, and visiting moms and babies to talk about development, bonding, and milestones. I was tired and found these red spots all over my body, so on January 2, 2018, I went to my doctor and they ordered blood work.
They called me that night and told me to go to the hospital because my platelet count was too low and my white blood cell count was too high. So, I went to the hospital, they did a bone marrow biopsy, and two days later they diagnosed me with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. I started chemo two days after that.
HC: Had you thought much about parenthood?
Thomeeka: My doctor asked me if I planned on starting a family or if I was interested in having children. I said yes, but I hadn't put much thought into it at the time.
I knew even before I started my job working with moms and babies that I definitely wanted to start a family, but the job did make me look forward to the experience even more. I was able to see everything I discussed with these families in my own life.
But I didn't think I’d have to think about parenthood this soon. I figured I would find someone and settle down, finish school, and move along the timeline. I had to speed up the process a little bit faster than I expected.
HC: What was the egg retrieval process like?
Thomeeka: I met with Dr. Cardozo after a few rounds of chemo and she explained that I’d need to give myself three injections per day for a week leading up to egg retrieval day. I was nervous about giving myself shots, but one of the nurses explained how to do it so I felt comfortable.
Then once I started the injections, I would go for blood work and an ultrasound every day or every other day, just to see how many follicles were responding and to measure how big they were. Once there were enough, we scheduled the procedure. The whole process took about a week and a half, and we got eight eggs.
HC: Did they talk to you about payment before the procedure?
Thomeeka: Yeah, my mom and I went to a room with one of the nurses and the financial supervisor. She called my insurance company while I was in the room to make sure they would cover the procedure and they did. It was one less thing for me to have to think about.
If I hadn’t had insurance I would have wanted to do it, but I’m not sure it would have been realistic. I went through the treatment in between my rounds of chemo, so I probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with the money, even with fundraising, in that short time frame.
HC: How is your health now and what are your future plans?
Thomeeka: After chemo, I had a bone marrow transplant and I just had my 100-day biopsy and everything remains clear. My health is definitely better than it was at the end of last year, and I’m planning to go back to school for my masters in social work.
I appreciate my health more and am able to live in the moment better. I’m also happy things went so well. All the doctors and staff have been great and I’m grateful for their help.