To see Gina Danford playing with her two-year-old daughter, Samantha, an onlooker would never guess the combination of good fortune and medical technology brought them together.
Danford was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 19. "My life went from college classes, papers and mid-terms to oncologists, diagnostic tests and an impending surgery," says the now 37-year-old resident of Novato, Calif. "When you hear the words, 'you have cancer' your whole world changes."
That U-turn is especially intense for those with ovarian cancer, the deadliest of the reproductive cancers. Each year roughly 20,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 15,000 die of the disease. With no reliable screening methods, ovarian cancer has often spread before it is detected, which means lower survival rates.
But Danford was lucky. The cancer, which had grown to the size of a small basketball, had not spread beyond her right ovary. After a surgeon removed the tumor in right ovary and fallopian tube, Danford was declared cancer free.
In celebration of her full recovery, Danford finished college on time, earned an MBA and embraced her inner-traveler. She spent a year living and working in Germany. In 2000, she moved to San Francisco where she met her husband, Pete, on a blind date. They married in 2002. And although the couple knew they wanted children, like many couples, they wanted to spend time as a twosome first.
Those plans went awry in 2006 when a scan and a blood test, called CA-125 (both routine for women with a history of ovarian cancer), suggested Danford's cancer had returned. This time the mass was on her left ovary. "I'd been so lucky," she says. "I didn't think I would beat another brush with cancer."
When faced with cancer, many patients and doctors jump into treatment mode. But cancer treatment can threaten fertility and Danford's case was no exception. Her gynecological oncologist explained that she'd most likely lose her remaining ovary and maybe even her uterus.
With her life on the line, her desire to have a biological child someday felt secondary. And it would take time to explore the available options. Time felt like a luxury she couldn't afford. But her physician encouraged her to consider her options. That's when she and her husband met Dr. Mitchell Rosen at UCSF Medical Center.
Rosen is a reproductive endocrinologist and fertility expert at the UCSF Center for Reproductive Health. As director of the UCSF Fertility Preservation Center, Rosen helps patients with cancer preserve their ability to have children, despite aggressive cancer treatment. "Dr. Rosen was amazing, kind and empathetic," says Danford. "He walked us through our choices and answered all of our questions."
Under Rosen's care, Danford chose to delay cancer treatment long enough to freeze embryos (a technique called cryopreservation). The decision didn't quash her doubts. Like many young women in her situation she grappled with such stark questions as "What if the cancer had already spread? What if I had a child and the cancer came back again? What if I didn't live long enough to have kids?" In hindsight, she knows she made the right choice for her.
After a grueling month of preparing her body with hormones, 33 eggs were retrieved from Danford's left ovary and 19 became embryos. The retrieval was on a Friday. The following Monday a surgeon removed the mass on her ovary. To everyone's relief the growth was benign. After a slow recovery, the couple waited to make sure Danford was healthy and, in 2009, moved forward with in vitro fertilization (IVF).
After grueling surgeries and cancer scares, Danford felt prepared to tackle any medical procedure necessary, but by the physical and emotional strain of IVF surprised her. "This time it was not just my life hanging in the balance," she says. "It was my child's."
The first two rounds failed. The third attempt would be their last. The couple was emotionally and financially drained. Most insurance companies do not cover IVF and the price tag can easily climb to tens of thousands of dollars. Again, they got lucky. On the third try Danford became pregnant with their daughter, Samantha.
Samantha was born in May 2010 and Danford now wants to share her success story with other young people facing cancer. "I want women to know that cancer doesn't mean you need to sacrifice your desire to be a mother," she says. "There are options."
But Danford's success doesn't end there. In January 2012, she helped launch a San Francisco-based consulting and coaching company, called ALTUS. At the risk of sounding Pollyannaish, she credits cancer for tapping deep veins of courage, strength and determination she didn't know existed. "Even though it was horrible, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone, good things do come out of it," she says. "And, ultimately, the experience gave me my daughter."
By freelance writer Catherine Guthrie.
Photo by Eric Desch.
Center for Reproductive Health at Mount Zion
2356 Sutter St., Seventh Floor
San Francisco, CA 94115
Phone: (415) 353-7475
Fax: (415) 353-7744
Fertility Preservation Center
499 Illinois St., Sixth Floor
San Francisco, CA 94158
Hotline: (415) 353-9115
Fax: (415) 353-7744