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Cancer sufferer thanks NHS for fertility hope

Please note, this article is more than 4 years old.

A mum who had some of her ovarian tissue frozen after being diagnosed with cancer in the hope that it would help her have another child has urged the public to support the NHS service that helped her. 

Isabelle Providence, 28, made the call after being supported by the Fertility Preservation Service at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, which is the first of its kind in England and is funded by a charity.

Doctors removed the tissue in March, three days before beginning chemotherapy that is almost certain to leave her infertile.

The tissue has been frozen at an ultra-low temperature, a technique known as cryopreservation, so it can be re-implanted later if the Benson, Oxfordshire resident wishes to try for another child.

Eighty percent of young cancer patients today will be cured of their cancer but one in ten of the survivors will lose their ability to conceive as a result of the intensive treatment.  

The service stores ovarian and pre-pubertal testicular tissue from children and young women prior to cancer treatment.  Males and females who have gone through puberty can store sperm and eggs through standard NHS services. Isabelle used the cryopreservation service because she needed to start her treatment urgently and there was not time for the hormonal stimulation required for standard treatment.

The service is provided without charge by Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (OUH) with funding from donations to the Future Fertility Trust, which is part of Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals Charitable Funds. The cryopreservation service was established in 2013 and helped its 100th patient in September 2016.

Isabelle, mum to Sophia, aged two, was planning a second child when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma in January.

She said: "I went from being a very healthy young woman with everything ahead of me, to having an aggressive cancer and needing to start immediate chemotherapy.

"Within seconds of hearing the dreaded word cancer I felt a real chill as I immediately thought about our plans for another child. I was devastated. This was actually the thing that bothered me most about my cancer diagnosis."

Her consultant, Dr Graham Collins, introduced her to Dr Sheila Lane, Consultant Paediatric Oncologist and OUH Clinical Lead for the Fertility Preservation Service.  

Isabelle said: "My first thought was this is brilliant and to hear that it is fully funded charitably was just incredible. It felt like a lifeline, to know there was hope and that cancer wasn’t going to destroy my future.

"Unfortunately I didn’t respond to the initial chemo treatment and I have now also had prolonged radiotherapy and a stem cell transplant.

"There is almost no doubt I would have lost any chance of further children were it not for this incredible service. I cannot put into words how grateful my husband and I are. Through a very tough year this has helped me enormously."

More than 30 of Isabelle's friends and colleagues from Deloitte, Reading, took part in a Tough Mudder assault course challenge in Henley-on-Thames in May and raised £12,500 for the fund, which was then matched by the company.  

Isabelle, a project manager at the Reading branch of the company, said: "It means so much to me to have this support from my wonderful colleagues, and it will be lovely to be able to give something back in this way.

"The road ahead is still very difficult, but this is one small part where I feel reassured, it is a gift of hope - which, when everything else feels rather bleak, cannot be underestimated."

Husband Jason Providence said: "The cryopreservation procedure made available through the Future Fertility Trust gave great comfort to us during a period of intense stress and uncertainty.

"We are and always will be extremely grateful to everyone involved in making it possible for us to benefit from this incredible programme."

The service was set up with teams from OUH and the University of Oxford's Nuffield Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

Dr Lane said: "It costs us around £3,000 per patient to process and store the tissue. This means a great deal to the patients who can benefit from this service. It is something practical and positive which gives hope at a time when patients and their families are fearful of the worst. We see the psychological impact immediately - particularly amongst teenagers and young women.

"We are now able to offer the support of the Future Fertility Trust Fund to around 70 patients a year. We know it means a huge amount to them - giving hope, and a little control back."

She said: "A phenomenal team effort has made this possible. Teams from across the University and the Trust have been working together on this programme for a number of years - paediatric and young adult surgeons, gynaecologists, reproductive medicine specialists, anaesthetists, tissue bank teams, oncologists, haematologists, researchers, and regulatory staff - many giving their time for free. It is only because of this 'can do' attitude that we have been able to be so innovative.

"The treatment is ground breaking and so is not yet an NHS commissioned and funded service. Therefore, we are entirely dependent upon charitable money and are helped in this by the energetic and supportive team from the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals Charitable Funds."

IVI UK, part of the Valencian Infertility Institute (IVI Spain), last year donated £250,000 over five years to the service. The IVI Foundation, the Research and Development arm of IVI, is also involved in a collaborative research programme with the University to improve the techniques of fertility preservation in boys and girls.

"The generosity of families, friends and IVI UK who continue to raise money on our behalf is incredible.  

"This, together with donations from the local community, will help support this new fund offering fertility preservation at no cost to our cancer patients.

"I am humbled by the tenacity and determination of the patients and families I meet through the programme and very proud that so many individuals and teams have worked together to make this possible, and that we are leading the way in the UK."

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