Lizzy Buchan: Loss of fertility is devastating effect of cancer treatment

A cancer diagnosis is a devastating thing, which can spread tumour-like into every aspect of a patient's life. As well as the physical effects, the disease can eat away at everything from jobs to relationships.

Cancer treatment can have a devastating effect on fertility. Picture: PA
Cancer treatment can have a devastating effect on fertility. Picture: PA

The damage that cancer treatments can do to fertility is one of the most painful aspects for many people.

High dose chemotherapy and radiotherapy can cause temporary or permanent infertility, leaving many with the devastating realisation that the treatment which could save their lives could destroy any chance of having children.

It becomes even more complex with child patients, as if young boys and girls are given these treatments before they reach puberty, it can remove any chance of fertility before it starts.

Researchers from Edinburgh University have spent the best part of 20 years trying to restore fertility to cancer patients.

All of those hours in the lab has resulted in the recent announcement that a healthy baby boy had been born to a woman whose ovarian tissue had been frozen more than a decade before.

The woman, who has not been named, decided to have a section of her ovary frozen after she was diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer in her 20s.

Doctors re-implanted the tissue last year and she was able to give birth naturally.

Not everyone wants to have a child but for those who do, this advance offers an extraordinary glimmer of hope.

The breakthrough would not have been possible without the extraordinary foresight of scientists who encouraged women to start 
freezing their ovarian tissue in the 1990s, despite not yet knowing how on earth they were going to successfully implant this back into the womb.

Impressive medical advances made since then have meant that this woman could become a mother despite going through the menopause when she was in her 20s due to her cancer treatment.

It is very encouraging that scientists are now hoping to replicate this progress with boys by freezing testicular tissue in children as young as a year old.

Restoring fertility is men is more challenging than in women as ­prepubescent boys are not yet able to produce sperm.

But lead scientist Dr Rod Mitchel insisted he was confident that the science will catch up over the next 20 years to allow this generation of boys to become fathers.

A six-year-old boy from Aberdeen, known only as Charlie, has become one of the first patients to undergo the procedure after he was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

It must have been a difficult decision for his patients to take and parents must be supported to ensure they are fully appraised of the risks and services available to them.

But what a chance this child has been given to lead a life beyond his cancer diagnosis.

Ethical concerns will always be raised around fertility treatments but the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics suggested that no issues were presented if the tissue implanted is the patient’s own.

Of course there will be questions as the treatment develops but for now this announcement should be celebrated, not just as a tremendous scientific advance but as a spark of hope for people who have come so close to losing everything.