Sharyn Corfield had always dreamt of being a mum, but never found the right person to start a family with. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 38 her whole world fell apart.
"I was devastated because I thought I would never have a child," she tells Essential Baby. "My heart broke."
Corfield was one of the estimated 19,371 women diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia every year. In 2019, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australian women aged 20-39 years.
According to Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) this means two young women every day will hear the news that could affect their chance of becoming a mum.
Fortunately, Corfield was one of the lucky ones, and despite being dealt the devastating diagnosis, had the strength to ask her doctor about her fertility.
"It was one of my first questions, 'can I still have children?'", she says.
The 42-year-old from Mornington in Victoria underwent a mastectomy and two lumpectomies and was then put on a 10-year course of medication. Her doctor also prescribed a treatment to suppress her ovaries which would prevent them being damaged by the cancer treatment.
The treatment sent her into menopause, which Corfield found very scary.
"I didn't know if it would work or if it would be permanent," she explains. "You have all the hot flushes and think, 'is it doing damage to my ovaries?' But you have to have a bit of faith."
Corfield was given a two-year window in which she could stop the cancer treatment and try to conceive.
Her oncologist referred her to Dr Genia Rozen, from Melbourne IVF, and after three rounds of IVF using donor sperm at 42, when she was about to give up, Corfield found out she was finally going to be a mum.
"I was elated when I did the pregnancy test. Going from, 'am I dying?' to 'I have a new life', was just magical," she said.
Corfield now celebrates each day and each special moment with her eight-week-old daughter, Tara.
Although she had six embryos left, Corfield had to give them up to re-commence her cancer treatment for another eight years and accept she'd only have one child. She hopes that by donating them to science they might help other women in the future.
Dr Rozen said less than 10 per cent of women previously diagnosed with breast cancer subsequently become pregnant.
"This is a lower rate compared to women who have survived other cancers," she explains. "This may be related to the cancer treatment, prolonged period of adjuvant treatment or the fear that pregnancy could increase cancer recurrence."
According to Dr Rozen, current evidence suggests pregnancy following breast cancer does not appear to increase the risk of relapse and a trial is underway to determine if interruption of the endocrine therapy after two years to conceive is safe.
"The data looks to be reassuring, but decision-making needs to be individualised so patients can make informed decisions regarding future childbearing."
Fertility preservation options for women include egg freezing, ovarian suppression (to protect some ovarian reserve), and for a minority of patients, ovarian tissue freezing.
However, a new survey conducted by BCNA has revealed that one in six young women with breast cancer in Australia are not being informed of their fertility options. The findings also revealed that in some cases limited options were discussed and all potential risks to fertility were not fully explained.
"There are many reasons why some women don't get the information regarding fertility," says BCNA CEO Kirsten Pilatti. "It could be that the doctor assumes they don't want more children or because the patient didn't bring it up, the doctor assumes it isn't something they want to consider. Family and individual pressure to 'get the cancer out' can also cause patients to not take the time to consider all their options."
Pilatti said women often reported being 'rushed' and 'overwhelmed' about making decisions about their treatment.
She adds: 'The overwhelming majority will survive and be able to have children. That's why it is so devastating to hear from young women who were not informed of their choices and found they are infertile as a result of their treatment.
BCNA have released a series of videos and a My Journey Online Tool to help women understand their options and steps they can take to preserve fertility. Head online or call 1800 500 258.