When 26-year-old Melissa Brown was diagnosed with breast cancer, preserving her fertility was not her foremost concern. Recently engaged, she and fiancé Steve Mohler were planning their wedding. And her mother, Gail, had recently suffered a third relapse in her 20-plus-year battle with cancer. But on the advice of her oncologist, David H. Henry, MD, Vice Chair, Department of Medicine at Pennsylvania Hospital, she decided to become familiar with Oncofertility.
Melissa had a special connection to Dr. Henry, her mother's oncologist. “My mother left me many things, and one of the greatest things was Dr. Henry,” she said. “He made sure to advise me on nearly every aspect of how cancer and treatment would affect my life. Without him, I would never have been directed to Dr. Gracia and I probably would not have children today.”
Clarisa R. Gracia, M.D., M.S.C.E., is the Director of the Fertility Preservation Program at Penn's Abramson Cancer Center (ACC). A leader in the specialized field of Oncofertility, the Program draws from Penn Medicine's long history of excellence in both women's health and cancer care.
For sisters Melissa and Jessica Brown, Penn's Program brought about a high point in the Brown family's difficult struggle with cancer. The Brown women provided constant support to one another, no matter what hardships the disease threw at them.
Briefly told, when Melissa's breast cancer diagnosis coincided with her engagement plans and with her mother's relapse, Melissa and Steve decided to move up their wedding date, ensuring that Gail could attend. Jessica was the one who cut Melissa's hair to make a wig for her special day.
Later, Melissa and her mom embarked on side-by-side chemotherapy infusions. When Gail passed away the month after Melissa finished her treatment, Melissa was holding her hand.
And after Melissa opted to have a bilateral mastectomy, Jessica decided to do the same to lower her own risk of breast cancer in the future.
Less than two years after her initial diagnosis Melissa was in remission, but was dealing with the void the disease left her. “Cancer stripped me of so much,” she said. “My mother, my breasts, my hair, my twenties, my immune system, and my fertility. I was just learning how to cope.”
It was Jessica who saw a way to give Melissa and Steve a chance at a new beginning. Over dinner she offered to be their gestational carrier. Working with Dr. Gracia and Penn's Fertility Preservation Program, Jessica was implanted with embryos frozen with Dr. Gracia's help at Penn Fertility Care, prior to Melissa's cancer treatment. Luck was finally on their side, and Jessica became pregnant with her sister's twins.
Fertility preservation is becoming a part of larger cancer treatment conversations. From improving IVF outcomes to preserving eggs and ovarian tissue through cryogenics, ACC programs are giving young women with cancer access to new fertility treatment options—and helping them fulfill their dreams of becoming parents.
Melissa is now cancer free and enjoying motherhood. She is continually grateful for the care she received by her physicians at Penn Medicine and her sister. “I love every moment of being a mom and am soaking in everything I can.”
Watch a video about fertility preservation at Penn.