Oregon Science Academy Graduates with Honors in Fertility Preservation

It’s only March and two of the Oncofertility Saturday Academies (OSA) have already completed their graduation ceremonies. With this newest class, the Oncofertility Saturday Academies have educated more than 240 students across the US. Last weekend, Mary Zelinski, PhD, who heads one of the Oncofertility Consortium‘s research projects, wrapped up this year’s Oregon academy at the Oregon Primate Research Center (ONPRC). Here’s what she had to say:


By Mary Zelinski, PhD

The Oncofertility Saturday Academy held at the Oregon National Primate Research Center and Oregon Health & Science University graduated on February 25, 2012.  The students celebrated their accomplishments by sharing outstanding posters, delicious pizza and interesting views on some ethical issues involving this rapidly evolving field.  Ten high school students from the Portland metropolitan area met for six consecutive Saturdays to learn about the field of Oncofertility through hands-on labs and lectures.  This year, we even had the sister of one the students in our first ‘official’ Oregon OSA graduating class!

On our first day of class, each student was assigned a cancer patient needing information and guidance about their fertility, and by the final class, the students shared their recommendations for fertility preservation options specific to their individual patient. Another highlight of the graduating class was a morning of very moving presentations by young cancer patients, both of whom had been recently diagnosed, and their quest to preserve their fertility.  This really put the entire content of the class into a real-life context for the students.

The Oregon OSA was again a big success, thanks to the efforts of Diana Gordon, Director of Education Outreach at ONPRC, Mary Zelinski, Associate Scientist at ONPRC and class instructor, Lynda Jones, Oregon OSA Curriculum Development Coordinator, and Dr. David Lee, Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, OHSU.  Here are some student comments:

“We were trusted to do real experiments and really got to dig deeper into current research about oncofertility.”

“I really enjoyed being able to participate in hands-on experiments and explore a field that is relatively new in science.”

“I loved talking to Dr. Lee and the cancer patients, and I loved ultrasounding the monkey.  I would make there be an Oncofertilty II class that I could take!”

“The hands-on labs and interactive parts (like the suture lab…) were FANTASTIC!”

“I liked the size of the class, the opportunities given by the instructor were unique, and I absolutely loved all the activities we did in class.”

“So much fun, amazing instructors!”

We will look forward to continuing Oregon OSA for as long as we can.  Our future efforts are aimed at polishing our curriculum that is using Oncology/Cancer as well as Oncofertility as major themes, training area high school teachers in using this curriculum, and basically disseminating these classes and labs (including those in NUBIO) throughout the Portland area.

Congratulations to all current and future OSA alumni !



Increased awareness could save fertility of cancer patients

The Oncofertility Consortium recently hosted a group of masters students from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Over the next few weeks, they will be contributing their perspectives to the Oncofertility Blog. Here is one of their stories.


By Zara Husaini-

When Matthew Zachary was diagnosed with brain cancer 16 years ago, he was not made aware of all the possible repercussions of the disease. “My fertility wasn’t even considered back then,” he said.

Zachary, the founder and CEO of I’m Too Young For This, a New York foundation for young cancer patients, said that cancer should never deprive someone of the right to have a family.

“When anyone gets diagnosed they want to take care of it right away,” Zachary said, explaining that patients don’t always have time to seek out information regarding oncofertility. There’s a very small window of opportunity. The psychology of shock puts you in survival mode – you don’t think of anything except I don’t want to die.”

Zachary, who was diagnosed as a college senior, is the father of twins who were conceived by in vitro fertilization. His cancer had affected his fertility.

Oncofertility is a field that provides fertility options to cancer patients. The field is made up of cancer and fertility experts. Options for patients include egg banking, embryo banking, ovarian tissue banking and ovarian transportation and shielding…Read more about Zara’s perspective on oncofertility.

Survivors: A New Magazine for Breast Cancer Survivors

As we have covered in past blogs,  young people account for about 10% of all cancer patients.  As science, research and advocacy evolve, more young people are SURVIVING cancer and going on to lead healthy and productive lives. Nonetheless, young cancer survivors are in a league of their own when it comes to survivorship issues, (i.e., late-term effects of cancer treatment, fertility, heart & brain health, etc…). In an effort to address and celebrate breast cancer survivorship, particularly in women diagnosed at a young age, a new quarterly magazine was born: Survivors: A Magazine for Inspiration, Hope, Healing and More.

In November 2011, the premier issue of Survivors: A Magazine for inspiration, Hope, Healing and More was published. According to the editors, the goal of the magazine is to “highlight positive and inspiring breast cancer survivor stories – about people who have turned their diagnosis and situation into possibilities and opportunities.” The most significant aspect of this new magazine lies not only in its mission, but also in its content – the magazine spotlights grass roots programs and organizations allowing them to get the kind of exposure they often deserve and need, but don’t often get.

Throughout the first issue are stories from women, many still in their reproductive years, who are involved with the Breast Cancer Awareness Body Painting Project (BCAPP). BCAPP is a form of art therapy for breast cancer survivor showcasing women of all different races and ethnicities with their chests/torso painted, aiming to demonstrate the beauty and inspiration in survivorship by presenting a positive body image of breast cancer survivors. If you have not already, you should definitely take a look at these profound and brave images of women who have been diagnosed with and survived, breast cancer.  If you need a little inspiration, you will be hard pressed not to find it here.

Their first issue of Survivors: A Magazine for Inspiration, Hope, Healing and More can be downloaded for free so take a look at it here and if you love it, they’ve already released their second issue for purchase.  If you’re interested in contributing breast cancer survivor stories or other related content, please send them an email at: survivors@inkspotdesigns.com.


Do Adult Women have Ovarian Stem Cells?

A recent study in Nature Medicine indicates that the human ovary contains rare cells that have the developmental capacity to form immature eggs, called oocytes, in adulthood. The research, by White, Woods, Takai, Ishihara, Seki, and Tilly, suggests that oocyte precursors may exist in the adult human ovary. The current dogma is that cells able to become oocytes are produced prior to birth.

Tilly’s group suggests that a woman’s ovaries contain presumptive stem cells that, when isolated, purified, and cultured in a laboratory, can divide and differentiate into cells that express oocyte-specific genes.

Many questions still remain regarding these rare cells within the adult human ovary. For example, stem cells are undifferentiated cells with the capacity to become specialized cells. However, it is not known if the rare cells described in the study are already immature oocytes. It is also not known where these rare cells may be located within the mature ovary, how many of these cells are in the adult human ovary, or what physiological role, if any, they may play in fertility. Gaining an understanding of these issues would help scientists better understand the cells and their potential.

Our Oncofertility Virtual Grand Rounds speaker, David Albertini, PhD, was quoted in the New York Times stating the new study is, “along a completely different line,” but still should be interpreted with caution until other researchers have been able to repeat it. Dr. Albertini also said that the study’s use in fertility treatments would be far off because cells grown in the laboratory often develop abnormalities, a problem that would need correction before any egg could be accepted for fertilization.

Like all rigorous scientific research, we eagerly await the verification of these results and gaining further understanding of how these cells may be useful to young cancer patients who may lose their fertility due to chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery.

John Green’s “Fault in Our Stars” and AYA Cancer in the Media

For all those young adult readers out there and even for those who are in no way eligible for that category anymore, John Green has just released his 4th fiction book, The Fault in Our Stars, starring two, young cancer stricken protagonists. Though the topic is a little grim, Green composes the novel into a surprisingly heartening story. Although fictitious, Green worked as a student chaplain in a children’s hospital several years ago and knows a thing or two about real-life young people living with or through cancer.

A little about the book: Hazel is sixteen-year-old girl living with terminal cancer and carting around an oxygen tank when she meets Augustus, another young cancer survivor who lost his leg during his bout with osteosarcoma, at her kids-with-cancer support group. The two are kindred spirits, sharing an irreverent sense of humor and wit, and end up falling in love in spite of Hazel’s prognosis. Green’s book reflects on the universal questions we can all relate to – How will I be remembered? Will my life, and my death, have meaning? What do I want to do with my life, now, in this moment?

Green recently sat down for a segment of Weekend Edition on National Public Radio (NPR) and discussed his book as well as his experience spending time with young cancer patients. Green talked about wanting to write a book that didn’t feature teenagers as “wide eyed” with the answers to life’s existential questions. He said, “The truth is that teenagers are teenagers, whether they’re sick or well. And whether they’re going to exit adolescence or not, they still have to go through this.” This in particular, makes Green’s book come off as authentic and true-to-life because cancer or not, kids still want to be kids and live in that moment, albeit those with a cancer diagnosis have a more pronounced understanding of their mortality.

Through the recent attention being paid to the adolescent and young adult (AYA) cancer community in the media via movies, (50/50), organizations (i2Y, SAMFund) and now Green’s latest book, The Fault in Our Stars, the public can get a better understanding of the specific needs of young people living with or after a cancer diagnosis (fertility, survivorship, psychosocial care). To read more about or to purchase a copy of The Fault in Our Stars, please click here.

Oncofertility Consortium at Northwestern University Pioneers Fertility Preservation

Fertility sparing procedures which were once infrequent and under utilized, are now more commonly performed in young men and women facing a cancer diagnosis. A recent article in the February issue of the American College of Surgeons Bulletin, entitled Gynecologic Oncology Surgeons Spare Patients’ Fertility, Enhance Quality of Life,” by Jeannie Glickson discusses some of the technological advances in gynecologic oncology which have produced more favorable outcomes for young people facing a cancer diagnosis and fertility loss. Glickson talks to several heavy hitters in fertility preservation care, including Kristin Smith, Fertility Preservation Patient Navigator, and Oncofertility Consortium member Dr. Julian Schink, who maintain that it takes a multidisciplinary approach and team effort to treat young cancer patients.

One of the many things that Northwestern University is known for is pioneering collaborative fertility preservation care, oncofertility, at a time when many other institutions were treating fertility loss as a side effect of cancer treatment. According to Dr. Schink, “You need an oncologist who believes that the patients’ survival is the first priority, and you need a fertility team that respects some cancer patients’ desires to have children. You need strong players on both sides.” Specifically for these reasons, the Oncofertility Consortium was established – to respond to an urgent need for comprehensive fertility preservation care, incorporating clinicians, researchers and social scientists, all committed to ensuring that patients understand and can utilize fertility sparing technology.

Currently, patients interested in preserving their fertility may have some options that coincide with their cancer care, but other techniques not yet available to patients are being researched at the Oncofertility Consortium for potential future use. One of these techniques, a process called in vitro maturation, is performed by harvesting immature eggs from ovarian tissue strips which are cultured outside of the mother’s womb, treated with hormones until they mature and then fertilized with sperm to create an embryo. This would be particularly useful to patients who are not candidates for ovarian tissue transplantation such as leukemia patients or those with ovarian cancer.

As a result of the efforts of the Oncofertility Consortium and its members, patients can now receive comprehensive fertility preservation care at several sites across the country and internationally. At Northwestern, there has been a slight decline in the demand for fertility preservation services because patients no longer need to travel to Chicago for their treatment – they can find an institution, with the help of our Fertility Preservation Patient Navigator, in their own areas and according to Dr. Schink, “that’s a good thing.”

To read more about Northwestern’s pioneering efforts in oncofertility in Gynecologic Oncology Surgeons Spare Patients’ Fertility, Enhance Quality of Life, please click here.

Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation: Jog for Jill

Those of you in the cancer community may have heard the name Jill Costello before. We first learned about her through her best friend and cancer advocate, Darby Anderson, on an impromptu visit to the Oncofertility Consortium. Jill has been featured on ESPN, written about in Sports Illustrated, interviewed on NPR and she even has her own entry in Wikipedia. Jill was an athlete, a 4.0 student, and an activist among other things. She was an athlete by nature, and an activist by choice. At the age of 21, Jill was diagnosed with stage 4-lung cancer – a healthy and active young woman with no history of smoking or genetic pre-disposition to cancer.

There is no cancer that is better than another, but lung cancer often has discouraging statistics. Less than 2% of individuals diagnosed with lung cancer at stage 4 survive, and many associate lung cancer with smoking, assigning an unfair stigma for many diagnosed with the disease. As a result of this disease’s reputation (that it’s self-induced), and due to the low survival rate, it rarely attracts big research money. In the last 40 years, the survival rate has largely remained the same.

As a testament to who she was as a person, Jill was brave and positive throughout her yearlong battle with cancer. She remained active on the rowing team and successfully led her team to a Pac-10 victory as the coxswain for UC Berkeley’s women’s crew. She finished college with a 4.0 G.P.A. and spearheaded the first Jog for Jill, a 5k walk/run for the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation on February 7, 2010 in Berkley, CA. Jog for Jill raised over $45,000 dollars and drew 1,000 participants making it the largest fundraiser ever for lung cancer at that time.

A little over one year after her initial diagnosis, Jill passed away leaving behind a legacy of activism and fundraising in an effort to, in Jill’s own words,  “Beat Lung Cancer Big Time!”  Beginning March 11, 2012, the Jog for Jill Walk/Run series kicks off in Berkeley, CA and will be touring the country to raise money for lung cancer research. The Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation will be hosting walk/runs in 17 different cities, so please visit the Jog for Jill webpage for details on how you can participate.

February is National Cancer Prevention Month

Every month there is some sort of health observance serving as a reminder to people that care should be taken with our bodies, our health and our well-being. We’ve only got one shot at this so we better make the most of it, right?!  This month, February, is National Cancer Prevention Month.  Nearly 1/3 of all cancers are preventable so as you can imagine, there’s a lot you can do to protect yourself simply by making a few lifestyle changes. Here are a few things you can do to reduce your risk for cancer:

Get screened regularly and know your health history: Regular screenings play a big role in cancer detection and prevention and knowing your family’s health history is important for lowering your risk for certain cancers.  For example, if your family has a history of breast and/or ovarian cancer, make sure that you are going in for regular visits with your gynecologist and ask about genetic testing to determine your risks. Share you history with him/her so that they can have a better understanding of your individual healthcare needs.

Eat Right and Exercise: Enough information is out there about this that it almost seems redundant to even mention it, but still I must. Eat your broccoli. Talk a brisk walk 3-4 times a week. Pick up a 5-pound weight or do some yoga. Not only will you be lowering your risk for cancer, but you’ll also be reducing your risk for a plethora of other diseases and health problems.

Don’t Smoke and Drink in Moderation: Smoking accounts for 30% of all cancer deaths so why light up? Your lungs are doing a good job for you so why not return the favor? Enough said. As for alcohol, we’ve all heard about the benefits of a glass of red wine, but that’s the occasional glass, not the whole bottle at every sitting. The antioxidant found in red wine that’s believed to provide health benefits, Resveratrol (a compound found largely in the skin of red grapes), can just as easily be found in grape juice so use good judgment and your body will thank you for it.

Limit Your Exposure to the Sun and Always Wear Sunscreen:  Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer diagnosed in the US. Not only does too much sun exposure significantly increase your risk for skin cancer, but that tan will eventually fade and leave you with sunspots and leathery skin. Not cute. So slap on some sunscreen and take care of the largest organ in your body – your skin!

I’ve only just touched upon some things you can do to reduce your risk for cancer so do a little research and talk to your doctor for a more comprehensive list. As any cancer survivor will tell you, it’s not a journey you want to go on willingly, so do what you can, when you can to live your best life.

Registration Open for Oncofertility Education Program at UPenn in Philadelphia

Ever wonder what an embryo looks like as it develops? How one sperm “beats out” all of the others to fertilize an egg? What about the steps needed to become a researcher who studies these processes? Join the Oncofertility Saturday Academy at the Penn Academy for Reproductive Sciences.

If you are a girl in 10th, 11th, or 12th grade, join us in taking a firsthand look at reproductive health and fertility from scientists and doctors directly involved in this field. In an all-female workshop full of scientific discussions, demonstrations, and hands-on labs, we will examine current research in reproductive health. We will also discuss oncofertility, or new methods to preserve fertility in female cancer patients whose chemotherapy may be harmful to their eggs, making it difficult for these women to have their own genetic child. Topics to be covered include the physiology and anatomy of the female reproductive system through mouse dissection, demonstration of fertilization and development of the embryo, examination of a scientific journal article, discussion of the ethics of decision-making in science, and presentation of a variety of careers in science.

The dates for the Saturday workshops are March 10, 17, 24, 31 and April 14 and 21 (Note: There will not be a session on April 7, 2012). Each session will be held from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the University of Pennsylvania. Participants must be able to attend all six sessions of the workshop to apply. SEPTA tokens can be provided for daily transportation if necessary; the need for tokens does not affect eligibility.

For more information and to register, download the application!

Cancer & Fertility Preservation: How I Lost My Uterus and Found My Voice

A newly released memoir from cancer survivor, Michelle Whitlock, delves into her experiences with HPV, cervical cancer, fertility preservation and love in a book that you will read from start to finish in one sitting. How I Lost My Uterus and Found My Voice is an honest and (very) candid account of what her 20s looked like, replete with all the things you might expect out of a 20 something: falling in love, travel, finding oneself, heartbreak, etc… Now throw in a whole lot of cancer, embryo banking, chemo, radiation, incontinence and a play by play of “getting your groove” back after your vagina has done a total 180 from what it once was, and you have a very unique story.

At the age of 26, Michelle found out that she had HPV, a sexually transmitted virus infecting 50-60% of sexually active people. Shortly after finding this out, she received the biggest blow of her life – she was diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer.   From that point forward, Michelle made it her mission to ensure her treatment plan was something that worked for her, meaning not only was she going to do everything in her power to beat the cancer, but she was also going to fight just as hard to preserve her fertility for her “maybe babies” one day. At a time when little information was offered regarding fertility preservation, Michelle had to take the reins into her own hands and become her best advocate. Unsure of whether or not she even wanted children, she was not going to let cancer take her options away.

After successfully beating cancer the first time around and avoiding a total hysterectomy by electing to undergo an experimental surgery to eradicate the disease, she was diagnosed with the same cancer just a few years later.  She was left with no other option except chemo, radiation and a total hysterectomy, but as a result of her research and commitment to finding the best care possible, she found a doctor who understood the importance of her fertility just as much as she did. Thus, her “maybe babies” came to fruition and were put on ice for a date… TBD.

I don’t want to giveaway any more of her story, but this is a must read for cancer patients, survivors, caregivers or anyone that wants to know what cancer, fertility issues, and sexuality really look like. I highly recommend it for its rawness and the openness with which she shares her experience. Nothing is sugar-coated in these pages – Michelle talks about things that will make you blush from time to time, but they’re the things no one talks about, and should be.  It’s an inspirational story that reads like a conversation with your girlfriends so if you haven’t already, please pick up a copy of How I Lost My Uterus and Found My Voice, by Michelle Whitlock, and see what I have been raving about!

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