MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) - It can be a crushing diagnosis for a young, healthy woman. Cancer often impacts hopes of motherhood.
But thanks to modern fertility medicine and technology, chemotherapy, radiation, and hysterectomies don't have to spell the end of a growing family.
“I just knew something wasn't right,” said Nikki Moen. “I had to listen to my body and go in."
Moen says the symptoms were messing with her menstrual cycle.
Doctors would eventually find a benign-looking polyp inside her uterus.
The 29-year-old figured it wasn't serious. The diagnosis, however, proved devastating.
"He said, ‘I'm sorry to tell you, but the polyp came back malignant. The cancer is called low grade Adenoid Sarcoma,’” said Moen. “I didn't know what to say. I just said, ‘ok’ … I was almost in the grieving process when I found out I had cancer.”
Moen, a Twin Cities dental hygienist, and her boyfriend Sam Brandriet quickly researched this rare occurrence of uterine cancer in someone her age.
They got second opinions at the Mayo Clinic.
"We had to separate some of our emotions from the facts,” Moen said.
It turned out the best path for her health was a hysterectomy.
"When you hear hysterectomy, what do you think?” she said. “I was shocked. Scared. Thought it was an aggressive approach to being how young I am. Why aren't there other options?"
Her biggest concern with a hysterectomy was she and Sam wouldn't be able to have children.
They were crushed.
"It's a blessing that we're able to carry children and be able to give that to our spouse and have family of our own. Sentimental,” she said. “When that's taken from you, it's emotional. It's hard to even choke it up sometimes."
"I'm very proud of her,” said Brandriet. “We're looking at it more as the glass is half full-type situation. She's going to live."
The couple decided to seek out fertility options with the idea that maybe they might one day find a surrogate to carry their child.
Moen eventually visited a facility where she had some of her eggs frozen for future use.
"We're so young, we want to carry on our family genes and have family of our own,” she said.
Dr. April Battcheller is the medical director at Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine - Minneapolis.
They specialize in fertility issues, including helping women with cancer.
"It's such a sensitive time as you can imagine,” said Dr. Battcheller. “These women are recently diagnosed with cancer. Their whole life is changing. It's really important for them to have something to hold to, to create normalcy in their life. I would say it's very empowering for women to pursue fertility treatments. It allows them to look into the future, past the cancer diagnosis toward a more normal life."
At CCRM, patients are given high concentrations of natural hormones to spur egg development.
A minor, 15-minute surgical procedure follows with Dr. Batcheller, guided by an ultrasound, using a needle to gather as many eggs as possible.
Instead of just one, the doctor hopes to capture 15 to 20 mature eggs.
Those are then frozen in these liquid nitrogen tanks, potentially for decades.
It's the same procedure Moen underwent in the weeks before her hysterectomy, not knowing what might happen to her body afterwards.
"So I do think that we're seeing a lot of patients pursuing fertility preservation prior to undergoing procedures for their cancer therapy,” said Dr. Batcheller.
The doctor reports that many cancer survivors, including those who are rendered sterile from chemo or radiation, can still become pregnant if their eggs are preserved before cancer treatments and their uterus remains healthy afterwards.
"It's crazy what they do,” Moen said. “Don't know how else to describe the science behind it."
Of course, following the hysterectomy her path with Sam to parenthood will be a different one, but the dream of becoming mom and dad survives.
"That's the beauty of being able to freeze our eggs and still have control of when we want children when we are both ready to do that," he said. "Is there a timeline? Five years? Three years? One year? I need to get a ring.”
Now, about a month after her hysterectomy, Moens reports she is cancer free.
Of course surrogacy is a very expensive process, potentially costing tens of thousands of dollars.
Friends and family have already started helping them raise some money, knowing how badly they want to have their own child after cancer.