October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and when you hear the word cancer, your mind doesn’t automatically go to fertility preservation. But when 30-year-old Tricia Russo learned she would have to go through chemotherapy, radiation, a mastectomy, reconstruction, and begin taking medications that could prompt menopause for her breast cancer diagnosis, her team quickly floated the idea of freezing embryos.
It’s been nine years since Tricia’s breast cancer diagnosis, and her world looks a lot different. Not only is she a breast cancer survivor, she has endured a brain cancer diagnosis and surgery, became a mother through a surrogate and using donor eggs, and detailed her experience through a documentary film.
In today’s episode, we hear from Tricia on her experience and get further insight from her fertility doctor, Dr. Natalie Cekleniak of IRMS.
Guest: Tricia Russo, Filmmaker
Expert: Dr. Natalie Cekleniak, Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science (IRMS)
Host: Dan Bulger
You can watch ‘Love Always, Mom’, on Amazon Prime here.
For more episodes of This is Infertility on Oncofertility:
- Episode 19: Oncofertility: Making Fertility Preservation a Priority
- Episode 20: Oncofertility: Fighting for Fertility Preservation Coverage
- Episode 21: Oncofertility: The Hope Fertility Preservation Can Bring
- Episode 22: Oncofertility: Helping Patients Navigate Between Oncology and Fertility
- Episode 54: Oncofertility: Having a Fertility Benefit that Covers Fertility Preservation
Progyny is hosting a free webinar, Fertility Preservation for Cancer Patients: Focusing on Survival and Your Life After Cancer, with experts from the oncofertility industry (many of which are previous podcast guests!). You can find more information about it here.
Be sure to follow us on Instagram, @ThisisInfertilityPodcast and use the #ThisisInfertility.
Have a question, comment, or want to share your story? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are some highlights from this episode:
A Breast Cancer Diagnosis and Oncofertility
5:06 – 13:17
Tricia Russo: So, I just started to feel a pain in my breast – I felt a little lump. And I did go to the doctor to have it checked out. And they said that it was from my birth control pill. It was probably just a shift from the birth control. I had got a second opinion from my gynecologist who said the exact same thing. And then a few months later, it is still hurting. It always bugged me even to sleep, I would like roll and it would kind of hurt then I started to feel a pain in the armpit. And so, I went back into the doctor and I will never forget, I told them, I said, remember that lump? Well, it feels bigger, and I have a feeling of pain in my armpit. And he turned just like white as a ghost. And immediately I went in to get a mammogram and an ultrasound to see what’s actually there. After the ultrasound, I scheduled a biopsy, maybe two days later, and the biopsy results came back that it was positive. And I did have breast cancer. I remember my husband was standing there when I got that phone call. I just remember looking at him and he just kind of crumbled. He looked like somebody had just punched him in the stomach. And that’s really what it was. For us. It was a huge gut punch getting that diagnosis.
Dr. Natalie Cekleniak: One of the subsets of care that we give is planning future fertility for cancer survivors, which is basically what oncofertility is talking about, let’s make sure we can do complete planning for your medical care as you complete the staging and the diagnosis of your disease and talk about treatment for that particular cancer. What are the other things that we can do now to make sure that when you’re cured and doing well, you can pick up and resume your life as you have always planned it. So, one of the things that we do is talk to people about treatment options, including freezing embryos or freezing eggs prior to them embarking on cancer treatment.
Tricia Russo: It was very helpful to have a plan like a fertility plan while I started the cancer treatment plan, because I felt like I still have the rest of my life ahead of me. And I still had this this momentous, you know, life milestone that I could actually look forward to.
Brain Surgery and Plan C
14:43 – 16:55
Dan Bulger: This was now stage four cancer and the focus once again had to be on survival.
Tricia Russo: After they found something on one of the three-month scans in my brain, we decided to not take the risks of doing IVF myself. I felt very lost at that point. But then I found a therapy department at Sloan Kettering and was matched with a nurse practitioner who enlightened me on all the different paths to having a family.
Dr. Natalie Cekleniak: As the persistent, incredible, resilient person that she is, she ultimately came back to me to say, Okay, I know that I’ve missed the window of using my own eggs. But I’m doing really well. And we are interested in building our family. And we’d like to talk about using an egg donor and a carrier. And that’s what we did.
Love Always, Mom
17:37 – 26:39
Tricia Russo: You know, I felt so alone during that period of time. But we don’t talk about these things. You know, we don’t talk about our inner struggles and the struggles that we’re mostly experiencing, you know, at night when we turn off the light. And finally, it all rushes in and it just breaks you down. I know the technology to have a child would change and will change over time. So, making a film about the how to didn’t feel like something that would last through time. But making a film that tackles more of the emotions and journey and the ups and downs of having a child, that’s never going to go away.
It felt very liberating to get a lot of that off my chest, even if it was to a camera that couldn’t speak back to me.
And a big thing in the filming and why I think the film and the story resonates with people is that really juxtaposing life and death, which is really the line that we’re all walking in life every single day, whether or not we know it., We’re mortal, you know. And life and death go hand in hand. And so, you know, seeing him born is really like all this hope in one coming out in the world for me, and balancing out all the death and the thinking of death and all of that stuff that we had to endure.
Dan has been in the healthcare industry for the last six years as a multimedia content producer. Better known as ‘Video Dan’ he as interviewed numerous doctors, patients and other experts in the world of fertility. He’s also the producer for this podcast, This is Infertility. On a personal note Dan’s parents started fostering kids when he was four years old, and he considers himself a proud older brother to over 100 foster children.
Films after earning her MFA at USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program. Prior to that, Trish worked for NY-based, Michael Mailer Films, associate producing the low-budget feature, Kettle of Fish. Trish was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and is now living with stage 4 breast cancer. In 2015, Trish founded The Cyan Gray Hope Foundation, a non-profit focusing on creating content to raise awareness for metastatic breast cancer and infertility. LOVE ALWAYS, MOM is their first project. Trish served as a Hear My Voice Volunteer for Living Beyond Breast Cancer in 2017 and runs a support group for young metastatic breast cancer survivors in Los Angeles. Trish has been a keynote speaker for the Avon Foundation, Providence Saint Joseph Foundation, and the Healing Gardens of NWA. She resides in Los Angeles with her husband, screenwriter, Greg Russo, and their son, Grayson.
Natalie A. Cekleniak, MD, joined the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science in 2000 and currently serves as Practice Director.
Dr. Cekleniak received her B.S. in molecular biology from Haverford College in 1989, and her medical degree from a combined program at Dartmouth Medical School and Brown University School of Medicine in 1993. She subsequently completed a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, and a fellowship in reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Dr. Cekleniak’s areas of clinical interest include embryology, age-related infertility, and diminished ovarian reserve. Her research has focused on the maturation of human eggs in the laboratory, and she is the principal author of one of the seminal research papers in the field of infertility. Dr. Cekleniak’s professional affiliations include the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, and the Society of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility.
Dr. Cekleniak shares a busy household with her husband Randy and their three children.
Music From This Episode:
Artist: Josh Woodward
Track: Hollow Grove Instrumental Version
Artist: Lee Rosevere
Track: Small Steps
Artist: Rest You Sleeping Giant
Track: Jazzmasters and Delay Pedals