Young women being treated for cancer are urged to freeze ovary
18 January, 2019 — By Tom Foot
GIRLS and young women being treated for cancer should consider storing an ovary in freezers to protect their chances of future childbirth, a leading consultant gynaecologist said this week, as the procedure was made available on the NHS for the first time.
Patients in five north London boroughs, including Islington, can now “preserve fertility” with a revolutionary process.
Ovaries are frozen at minus-196 degrees and can be thawed and used, after treatment, when women are ready to try for a baby.
Radiotherapy and chemotherapy can severely damage fertility but future childbirth is not foremost in patients’ minds when they begin treatment, according to obstetrics consultant and UCL women’s health senior lecturer Paul Hardiman.
He told the Tribune: “In this country, there are many women and girls who get cancer who are not told about the potential impact on their fertility. A recent study showed 50 per cent did not know about this. Naturally, the main concern is to save a patient’s life – but a few years down the line this could be very important to the patient.”
Mr Hardiman added: “Ideally, if it was my daughter, I would check that the treatment would not damage my fertility and ask what might be done to protect fertility.”
He accepted that having major surgery in the immediate aftermath of a devastating cancer diagnosis would be “extra stress”, but added that the keyhole surgery procedure, compared to the cancer treatment, was small. Ovary freezing has been used in European countries for 20 years, but has never been available on the NHS in this country. The technique has a 45 per cent chance of restoring potential for childbirth, compared to around 4.5 per cent for conventional egg freezing.
The Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead applied to the North Central London Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) for funding.
The Human Tissue Funding Authority then approved the hospital as a site where ovaries could be frozen and stored.
Mr Hardiman said: “It is currently also being performed in Oxford and Edinburgh, but this is the first time it has been fully NHS-funded in the UK. What happened really was the Royal Free backed me on this and went to the CCGs who saw the wisdom and agreed to fund it.”
One of the most interesting potential features of the new procedure, Mr Hardiman said, is that women patients in Europe “have benefited from restoration of their menstrual cycle after tissue implantation”.
Women in their mid-30s, who can feel like their “clock is ticking”, could have their frozen ovary thawed and re-implanted for this purpose – potentially allowing them to have children far later in life than is currently the case.
Mr Hardiman said: “Once it’s frozen there is no evidence it deteriorates and they keep it until they want a baby. When we put the ovary back – it starts producing hormones, and prevents menopausal symptoms. At the moment the Royal Free is doing this to restore fertility, but potentially it could be used as natural form of HRT.”