In 2004 Angela Boylan, then 34, had just got married to Pablo Ruiz. Mass General Magazine reports the Irish woman living in Boston was looking forward to starting a family but soon after received the shocking news that she had uterine cancer and would likely never bear children. A second medical opinion bore out the first diagnosis.
Angela was told all was lost but refused to give up on fighting cancer or having her own children and she was connected with a cancer specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital where a promising new treatment to help women with cancer have children was in the early stages.
Thomas Toth, MD, the director of the IVF Unit there (which is part of the MGH Fertility Center) was a world renowned expert in fertility preservation efforts for cancer patients and others. The unit, led by John Petrozza, MD, chief of the MGH Fertility Center now has a formal fertility program for cancer patients.
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“Thanks to better screening and early detection techniques, we were seeing patients who were of reproductive age with cancers that were quite treatable,” Dr. Petrozza says. “And good survival rates meant that patients could think about life beyond cancer.” Dr. Mary Sabatini also spearheaded the new program.Together a model program for fertility opportunities for cancer patients was introduced.
“Our hope is that patients can have an IVF cycle before chemotherapy or radiation,” Dr. Sabatini explains. “It’s not always possible, but the consultation is important. We don’t want patients to feel like they have missed an opportunity.”
Angela Boylan was among the first cases. “I always wanted to be a mom,” she says. “When I heard hysterectomy, all I heard was that we can’t have children.”
Her husband Pablo was worried about the cancer. “But right away,” he says, “our close friend Ann Tavenner volunteered to carry our baby [be a gestational carrier], whatever we needed. And as time went by, I wanted both things — my wife to be well and to have kids.”
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A gestational carrier helps patients who can’t carry during pregnancy. Ann and Angela were best friends since college in Dublin and functioned as a major support system for each other. She and her husband, Tom Tavenner Jr., had three children and Pablo and Angela were godparents to two of them.
Angela had six weeks to harvest her eggs before the hysterectomy. “Dr. Toth never sugarcoated the odds,” Angela recalls, “but his compassion was so apparent. He understands where people are coming from.”
In Nov. 16, 2006, two of Angela and Pablo's frozen embryos were transplanted into Ann and to their mutual delight she was told a few months later she was carrying twins.
On July 13, 2007, Ann gave birth to two healthy boys Naoise (nee-sha) and Cian (key-an).and now Ann is Cian’s godmother. “I still want to pinch myself some mornings that this has all happened,” Pablo says.
“If I were in Ireland or even anywhere else in Boston other than Mass General would I have reached this point? Probably not,” says Angela. “I went from the floor opening up underneath me to having a family.”
“There are lots of ways to build a family and be a parent,” says Dr. Sabatini, who leads the program. “We want to help people think about the day when cancer is no longer part of their life.”