By Josh Saunders
A cancer survivor has shared brave photographs revealing how she was denied the chance to save her fertility, robbing her of her dream to become a mother.
Becki McGuinness, 31, from London, was devastated to discover she had gone through early-menopause before her mother, seven years ago.
She was diagnosed with bone cancer on the spine and sacrum, the triangular bone at the bottom of the lower back that fuses the vertebrae with the hipbones and pelvis, at the age of 21.
She underwent six months of chemotherapy and a further six-weeks of radiotherapy ending in 2009, without being offered fertility-preserving measures.
Always dreaming of becoming a mum, a year later she was heartbroken to discover hot flushes and other symptoms were the early onset of the permanent menopause – meaning she cannot have children.
Unable to adopt due to longstanding medical issues, she started The Cancer and Fertility UK Campaign to warn others battling cancer to freeze their eggs, embryos and sperm, and that they have a choice to preserve their fertility.
Now ten years on from beating cancer, she shares powerful photographs of herself in a medical gown donning the words ‘fragile’, ‘no choice’, ‘mental health’ and more.
Becki, whose health prevents her from working, said: “I was warned that there was a chance I could become infertile, but not to worry about it as it doesn’t happen to everyone.
“I was never told to watch out for certain symptoms that were early menopause signs.
“Much later, I went to a gynaecologist and it was a kick in the teeth to be told they could have saved my fertility, no one fought for my fertility even though I wanted to save it.
“It doesn’t feel like they see the whole person, what you will lose and how it will affect you, by the time I was told I had cancer I was told I had ‘no time’ to save my fertility – but they were talking over a month in my case.
“For this type of cancer, at your meetings you should be warned this will highly-likely render you infertile rather than saying it might, then it gives a person the choice.
“I got photographers to help take striking images to start the conversation on cancer and fertility, there is no support out there for people especially for people like myself who didn’t do fertility preservation.
“When I look at them I see a fighter, all of these feelings I have inside that I wasn’t getting any help for, there was no support and I realise I have to fight to educate others.”
Becki was first diagnosed with a benign tumour in 2005, after noticing pain in her leg.
It required surgery and came back twice before a deadly osteosarcoma developed in its place years later.
She underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy to shrink the tumour, which was when she started to notice her periods becoming more infrequent.
Becki was put on hormone replacement therapy by her gynaecologist, but it was too late her ovarian reserve was destroyed permanently.
She said: “I started getting menopausal symptoms at the end of treatment and I suffered badly with the symptoms because no medical professionals told me about the menopause.
“My mum had not gone through the menopause herself and so we didn’t even know it could be the menopause because we weren’t told.
“I asked for a blood test because I wanted to know if I could have children. My fertility had meant a lot to me, but it sadly came back that I was permanently infertile.”
For seven years Becki felt unable to talk about her struggles and the mental health implications of having to contend with a childless future.
She said: “At the time I had cancer in 2008 no one was hardly talking about it let alone offering emotional support for going through it or the chance of losing your fertility.
“That isn’t the worst bit, even though I actively asked my oncologist, I wanted to preserve my fertility and my mum rang around fertility clinics as we had enough time to preserve but time ran out for me.
“They said it wasn’t possible for me and so being new to this cancer world, plus still in shock I had cancer at 21, I totally believed what they said.”
Knowing others out there were contending with the same fate as her, Becki has battled to change the medical field’s approach to fertility.
This led her to start the Cancer and Fertility UK Campaign, of which the images taken aiming to highlight ‘we want a choice’.
Becki said: “If you haven’t got a great team behind you then you will be left out, that picture shows what’s inside emotionally as a young person.
“Doctors forget about the emotional impact for even the people who have the choice, for anyone men and women and the LGBT community.
“There is a chance if you don’t preserve your fertility that it could be damaged or lost.
“People say you can adopt or foster flippantly, but if your health isn’t great you won’t always be able to do that.
“I want people out there to know they are not the only ones going through this, I hope it will get others to question treatment and the NHS sets up a support system for all patients.
“If there is time and it’s not detrimental to your health, then it’s important for a fertility specialist to be on board. The fertility specialist needs to be a part of the oncology team and protocol.”
A study from St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester found that four percent of female cancer patients have eggs or embryos frozen before treatment that leaves them infertile.
It also found that half of all female cancer patients between the ages of 15 and 39, became infertile following treatment.
The Royal College of Nursing issue guidance through the document ‘Fertility Preservation’.
Carmel Bagness, the RCN Professional Lead for Midwifery and Women’s Health, said: “It is tragic that many patients miss out on the chance to have children because they are not told about the possibilities available.
“Fertility may be the last thing on a patient’s mind so they need to be guided through their options.
“It is all the more complex when children are involved but that is no reason to avoid the topic.
“Nurses need to be able to broach this subject, adapting to the age and needs of the child and parents.
“This publication will add to growing technology and understanding in this area and help more people preserve their fertility for later in life.”
Recently Becki exhibited the photography at #Cmysigns by C the Signs whose tool uses artificial intelligence mapped with the latest evidence to help General Practitioners (GPs) identify patients with Cancer early.
In May she will be exhibiting at a young adults cancer conference by Shine Cancer Support.
You can read more at: www.cancerandfertility.co.uk and www.copingwiththebigc.blogspot.com/p/the-vicious-cycle-campaign