- Frances Fitzgerald
Speech: Cancer and Family Planning - Delivered to a seminar hosted by Europa Donna & the EPP Group
Tuesday 28th February 2023
Cancer and Family Planning
Ladies and Gentleman, Colleagues, Friends,
Thank you very much to everyone for being here, and indeed welcome to today’s event on Cancer and Family Planning. A particular welcome to our esteemed guests, Stella Kyriakides, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Dr. Fedro Peccatori, joining us from the European Institute of Oncology, Tanja Spanic, President of Europa Donna, and Katie Rizvi, the founder of Youth Cancer Europe.
Colleagues, cancer is an issue that has affected every family. It is a devastating experience for those who receive a diagnosis, and their loved ones. Thirty years ago, it was seen as a disease that affected older people, and it was effectively a life sentence. Yet now we are seeing a pivot: it is no longer a life sentence, with tremendous progress and treatments ensuring that if you are diagnosed with cancer early, you stand a very good chance of full recovery. However, it is also no longer seen as an older person’s disease. In fact, the cancer risk is rising with each generation. If you were born in 1990, you are at a greater risk of developing cancer, than those born in 1980. We see this in the rate of cancers observed in young people today, right across the different types of cancer.
So now, the conversation has become not how to help those diagnosed with cancer to make the most of the time they have left, but rather how to ensure that after recovery from cancer, the rest of a person’s life is not decided through the lens of their cancer. We have seen this from recent advocacy on the right to be forgotten and access to financial services for example. But today’s topic is of particular importance to women and men who have recovered from cancer in or before their 30s: how to have a family and what can modern medicine facilitate in that regard.
Personally, given my history in working on women’s issues and as a former Vice Chair of EuropaDonna, I am delighted that they have agreed to co-host this important event with me here today. Our particular focus is on breast cancer, as it is the most commonly diagnosed cancer type worldwide. It accounts for 1 in 8 cancer diagnoses, and 1 in 4 diagnoses in women. It is the most frequent malignancy and cause of cancer-related death in women aged under 40 in Europe. Breast cancer rates are rising in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women. However, rates rising faster in younger premenopausal women. When a woman receives a breast cancer diagnosis, it not only completely changes their lives over the course of their treatment, but it can also significantly affect their ability to have a family. More young women, who had planned to have children, are confronting a cancer diagnosis.
In particular when it comes to treatment, fertility can often be affected by the aggressive approach needed to combat cancer in younger women. Chemotherapy, hormone therapy and other aggressive courses of treatment can affect the reproductive system and a person’s fertility, resulting in temporary or permanent changes.
It needs no saying that infertility has a fundamental effect on the family life and relationships of those affected. It is particularly devastating for those who have recovered from cancer. These people, who have endured the physical and psychological toll of a cancer battle, must then deal with the emotional toll of infertility. The sense of loss experienced by these individuals can be profound. As the age demographic affected by cancer gets younger, the number of people affected by this issue will continue to rise. This is a growing societal problem, and one that we must be prepared to meet as part of the general approach to a healthy and fulfilled life after cancer, as well as part of the discussion on tackling infertility.
Cancer, and its effect on fertility, is a topic that is only beginning to enter public discourse. Firstly, we need investment in research that examines what are the reasons that people are increasingly getting cancer at a younger age. Additionally, we need continued investment in research and development to more effectively treat existing cancers, and to explore treatment options that safeguard and protect fertility from the devastating toll that cancer treatment may have. Through the Horizon Programme of the European Union, we can make real progress in building our knowledge and available treatment tools available to patients and their medical teams.
For now however, we must invest in solutions for those experiencing cancer-related infertility, to ensure that family planning options are available to them. I was delighted to see that the Irish Cancer Society made an investment of €420,000 in the Childhood Cancer Fertility Project a number of years ago. The aim of the initiative is threefold:
1. Adolescents under 18 years of age about to undergo cancer treatment likely to affect fertility will be offered access to an enhanced fertility preservation service operated by Merrion Fertility Clinic;
2. Female survivors of childhood cancers from 18 years to those aged under 27 years will be invited to have their fertility needs assessed, and referred for further treatment or investigation where fertility treatments may still be an option;
3. Children who have yet to reach adolescence will benefit from the development of ground-breaking fertility preservation methods previously not available in this country.
Access to the project is totally free of charge and it is hoped that it will lead to longer term benefits such as:
1. A structured fertility health service for children, adolescent and young adult cancer patients headed by Merrion Fertility Clinic that will make it possible for patients to be routinely referred for the assistance they need in a timely manner;
2. Access to fertility testing and tailored counselling to help patients and their families understand and explore the options that are available to them;
3. Addressing an identified gap in knowledge and resources for healthcare professionals by empowering them to inform their patients about fertility options open to them, and refer them to an appropriate service.
This is the type of exciting initiative that is just beginning to break through at operational level, and that we need to see more of to tackle the effects of cancer on fertility and family planning. It is now up to us as politicians to support such initiatives, and it is my hope that through today’s roundtable discussion, we can identify some initial changes that we can begin to make. Because we need to make sure that life after cancer can be lived to the fullest.
I look forward to today’s discussion and thank you for joining us.