Dating, Marriage, Careers and Cancer

Armen Hareyan's picture

Cancer and Life

The mother of a one-year-old baby girl, Lori DuRussel was 29 when a breast cancer diagnosis threw into question not only her very survival, but also her ability to care for daughter Abby while going through grueling rounds of chemotherapy. At the same time, Lori and her husband Mark worried that the cancer treatment might affect their plans to have more children in the future.

Michele and Jon Opem had just booked a trip to begin seriously thinking about starting a family when Michele was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 30, leaving her future fertility in doubt.

And at age 28, still on the dating scene, Janet Krahn was diagnosed with breast cancer. Going through treatment, she felt as if she had "slipped into a deep hole" while her friends were running past her, getting married and having babies.

"I felt like I was stuck, stuck with cancer," says Krahn, who faced her share of rejection from men who would conspicuously stop calling after learning she had breast cancer and a bilateral mastectomy.

"There is no easy way to say 'I have cancer,'" Krahn says. "Nobody's ready for that when you're still young."

No doubt, a cancer diagnosis is devastating at any age. But for younger women in the midst of establishing careers, relationships and families, cancer can be a particularly life-altering experience. As UW Comprehensive Cancer Center psychologist Teresa Woods puts it, it's one thing to receive the diagnosis at age 87 - when you've long since retired, and you're enjoying a 60-year marriage, bouncing grandchildren and great-grandchildren on your knee.

"It's quite another thing when a young person gets cancer," says Woods, who moderated a panel discussion, "Unique Issues Facing Young Female Cancer Survivors," during the UWCCC's Cancer Hope, Cancer Health Week.

Sharing unique struggles

From financial issues to families, young people with cancer face a very different set of issues than their older counterparts. As young female survivors, Lori DuRussel, Michele Opem and Janet Krahn shared their struggles and triumphs as panel members. They were joined by UW Health reproductive endocrinologist Elizabeth Pritts, MD, who offered perspective on the fertility issues confronted by young women with cancer.

For the Opems, the fertility journey, including two failed attempts at artificial insemination, has been at times frustrating. Michele Opem encourages other cancer survivors of childbearing age to learn as much as they can about treatment options and how they might affect fertility. As she did prior to her own cancer treatment, Michele also encourages women to seek out oncologists and other health care providers who are willing to work with you to try out options.

Even though she pursued a chemotherapy agent thought to be less toxic to the ovaries, Michele Opem later found out that she has a diminished ovarian reserve - meaning that she may not have enough remaining eggs to achieve pregnancy.

"I was very frustrated. I had done my research, I had done my homework. The chemotherapy agents still affected me," says Opem, who now volunteers for Fertile Hope, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping cancer patients dealing with infertility.

The Opems are now focusing on acupuncture and herbal medicine and hoping that pregnancy will occur naturally in the near future. Despite the struggles, Michele says she's "very much excited" about the fertility options available to her, including an acupuncture regimen, use of a donor egg and possibly adoption.

The adoption option


Adoption was the route chosen by the DuRussels after Lori's breast cancer treatment. In addition to their daughter Abby, now six and a half, the DuRussel family now includes another daughter, four and a half year-old Bryseida, and a three-year-old son, Gabe.

With a stack of cancer books on one side and a pile of adoption books on the other, Lori DuRussel remembers writing letters to adoption agencies inquiring about the possibilities. Since Lori had disclosed her breast cancer, some agencies wouldn't even deal with the couple. Others required her to be five or 10 years out of treatment before considering adoption. Some agencies required a letter from an oncologist saying she would have a "normal life span."

"Well, nobody can predict that," DuRussel said.

Lori and Mark DuRussel ended up working with an international organization to adopt Bryseida and Gabe from Guatemala. Though cancer complicated their attempts to expand their family, Lori DuRussel said she feels lucky that things worked out as they did.

"I wouldn't wish cancer on anybody," Lori DuRussel says. "But I wouldn't have these particular lovely people in my life if I hadn't had to go through it to get there."

Dating and Cancer

For Janet Krahn, it was difficult to watch her friends get married and start families while she dealt with breast cancer at age 28. After the diagnosis, she said one of her first thoughts was, "Would I ever date again?"

She knew that dealing with a person's idiosyncrasies is all part of dating - like coping with men who leave the toilet seat up, Krahn jokes. Nevertheless, she says she could not imagine that anyone would be able to deal with her quirks plus breast cancer.

But for the past year and a half, Krahn has been dating a "wonderful man" who she says was very understanding when she told him about her bout with cancer. In December, she will be cancer-free for five years, and she says she hasn't lost hope when it comes to relationships.

"I still dream of getting married and having a family," Krahn says, adding that her boyfriend understands that she may have problems with fertility, but he's willing to walk with her on that journey in the future.

UW Health's Infertility/Reproductive Endocrinology Clinic

The fertility journey for women with cancer can take several directions both before and after chemotherapy, from in vitro fertilization (IVF) to donor eggs, donor embryos and adoption, says Dr. Pritts, the reproductive endocrinology expert on the panel.

There is often a four-month wait for appointments at the Infertility/Reproductive Endocrinology Clinic at UW Hospital and Clinics, but Dr. Pritts says emergency IVF slots are routinely made available to cancer patients. For more information about the clinic's range of services, call 608-265-0300.

Additional resources

Learn more about UW Comprehensive Cancer Center's Young Women's Cancer Support Group


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