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Examining Cancer, Fertility, Sexuality, and Gender – A Study

By Maya M. Harper, M.A.

Every year, 70,000 adolescents and young adults (AYAs) between the ages of 15-40 are diagnosed with cancer. They may experience this diagnosis as a devastating twist of fate that has the potential for derailing their life from its current track. However, with the changes in the oncology field, cancer has become something that is survivable. People can and do have full lives after cancer.

The cancer treatments that can save a person’s life are not without risks. One of these risks is loss or impairment of fertility. There are proactive measures, such as sperm banking and embryo freezing, that a person can take if they have time before treatment. However, they may not find out about these services until it is too late. Even if they are presented with options, they must make decisions when they are already overwhelmed with making decisions about cancer treatment.

It is not uncommon nowadays for people to put off having children or even thinking about children until 30 or later. A cancer diagnosis means that a young adult may have this decision thrust upon them without warning. They may not have a partner. Kids may be the furthest thing from their minds. They have to make the decision not only of whether they want children, but also whether they are willing to have a child with the intervention of medical technology. Heterosexual people, in particular, may have always assumed that they could have children “naturally” someday. They may have much to consider. Fertility issues can also impact the romantic relationships of young adults who have been diagnosed with cancer.

Our new study – An Examination of Cancer Related Fertility Concerns– seeks to find out how people learn about and feel about fertility implications of cancer and cancer treatment. We would also like to find out whether there are differences in the ways that people of various sexual orientations and genders experience these implications. Heterosexual people and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people may tend to have different views of biological reproduction even prior to a cancer diagnosis.

Therefore, we are recruiting people who were diagnosed with cancer as young adults. We’d like to talk with them about their experiences for 45 minutes to an hour. I am excited to begin this study, because it is something that is truly novel. We are looking at oncofertility through a different lens than has been done before.  We may find interesting and useful results about the roles of sexual orientation and gender with respect to oncofertility. If you are interested in the study, please contact Maya Harper at maya-harper@northwestern.edu

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