Fertility Care Helps Couple Achieve Dream After Cancer

BMT and fertility care patient Rebecca Hertzog-Burns.

April 18, 2019

Rebecca Hertzog Burns approaches every obstacle with a plan. The quintessential fighter, she battled leukemia twice during her college years and the early days of her career as business coordinator for the athletic department at the University of Arkansas.

When Becca learned she might struggle to have a successful pregnancy following cancer treatment, she worked with fertility experts to preserve her options.

Becca and her husband, Tanner, welcomed a healthy baby girl in October 2018. They celebrated the milestone not only as the beginning of parenthood, but as another miracle on their incredible path.

A cancer journey

Becca’s cancer journey began in 2009 – her sophomore year of college. A bone marrow biopsy confirmed acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), an aggressive, fast-growing cancer of the bone marrow.

Chemotherapy followed, and Becca was in remission by May 2010. But in 2014, a mere 2 months into her career, her cancer returned with a vengeance. The second time around, Becca received intense chemotherapy and radiation followed by a cord blood transplant. Her recovery was grueling, with her weight plummeting nearly 30 pounds.

“At one point, they told me my chances of surviving were like a Hail Mary pass,” she recalls. “I was looking for a miracle.”

Becca rallied, and her white blood cell count slowly began to grow. Today, she is leukemia-free.

A new obstacle

The intense treatment had taken its toll. By May 2017, when Becca and Tanner Burns were ready to grow their family, they faced a new set of challenges. During her cancer care, Becca had taken steps to make sure she was doing everything she could to preserve her dream of becoming a mom.

“I was very aware that this was something big my body was going through, and I needed to ask the questions, to make sure having a baby could still be something possible in the future,” she says. “I think it’s important for cancer patients to ask those questions.”

Before her second round of cancer treatment, Becca met with reproductive endocrinology and fertility specialist Courtney Marsh, MD, MPH, an expert on The University of Kansas Health System’s advanced reproductive medicine team. Dr. Marsh discussed fertility preservation, outlining steps to take to give Becca the best chance for a healthy pregnancy down the road.

The high doses of chemotherapy and radiation treatment Becca received had taken a toll on her body. The couple would need to undergo in-vitro fertilization (IVF) to become pregnant.

In the IVF process, eggs and sperm are first retrieved, and then fertilization is induced in a laboratory environment by an embryologist. The fertilized eggs develop into embryos, which can be frozen until future transfer into the uterus.

When Becca and Tanner reconnected with Dr. Marsh in 2017, they were anxious to start. Becca began hormone treatment to prepare her uterine lining for an embryo transfer, but the lining would not thicken. They waited an additional 2 months, and Becca continued therapies to try to build her uterine lining.

“When they first told me the embryo transfer could not work with my lining, I felt like a failure and was devastated,” Becca says. “It really took me by surprise, having been through everything, that this could affect me like that.”

A heart-to-heart with Dr. Marsh put things in perspective. She let the couple know they were not alone, and there was hope. “One of the things people do not realize with fertility is that it can be as devastating as a diagnosis of cancer,” Dr. Marsh says. “With cancer, you know that it’s going to be a challenge. With fertility, the struggles are not talked about as much, and your expectations may be for things to be easy. It can be an emotional journey.”

As they continued their efforts, Becca kept close tabs on her own health results and communicated with Dr. Marsh and other care providers via Amanda Smith, a care coordinator with the advanced reproductive medicine team. It was a compassionate, team approach.

Ready for the challenge

Re-energized, Becca embraced the challenge. She researched, tracked down second opinions, ate special foods and tried acupuncture.

“I knew deep down that if this did not work, God had something else planned for me,” she says. “I just had to remind myself.”

The couple collaborated with Dr. Marsh and came up with a plan, following a European protocol to encourage Becca’s uterine lining to thicken. This included a regimen of vitamins, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant therapies and estrogen in several forms.

“A lot of times with these cases, we have to be very creative,” Dr. Marsh says. “We tried lots of different protocols and a host of injections and pills to get Becca’s uterus to grow a good lining. Some of it is science and staying up to date on the latest research, but some of it is just being creative and seeing what works with her body. After cancer, anything goes.”

By January 2018, Becca’s uterine lining was almost ready for embryo transfer. She received a Neupogen® shot to further boost the lining and underwent an embryo transfer shortly afterward.

The gift of pregnancy

A very long 2 weeks later, Becca received a phone call while standing in an auditorium at the University of Arkansas. On the other end of the line, Dr. Marsh and Smith greeted her with long-awaited news: She was pregnant. Screaming and cheering ensued.

“Every single step was a milestone, for us as well as for Becca,” Dr. Marsh notes. “With her success, our whole office celebrated.”

At 6 weeks along, Becca and Tanner heard their baby’s heartbeat for the first time.

Meeting a miracle

Months later, in October 2018, 2 days before her due date, Becca experienced swelling, nose bleeds and headaches. Diagnosed with preeclampsia, she was admitted to the hospital and put on magnesium.

Her experience in medical settings left her anxious and shaking. Family and friends gave her unwavering support – even when magnesium treatment left her burning hot and cranking the thermostat down to the 50s.

On October 11, Becca and Tanner’s dreams came true. They welcomed Blakely Marie into the world. The 5-pound, 13-ounce baby girl represented another miracle in their journey together.

“Having a family is amazing,” Becca says. “It’s crazy how much love you can have for a little baby.”

Overcoming so many obstacles makes their “happily ever after” all the sweeter.

“I don’t know how many people in her position have experienced this success,” Dr. Marsh says. “It’s always a miracle, but especially in this case.”

Physicians were quick to notice baby Blakely’s strength and neck control – impressive for a tiny newborn. Her parents recognized the potential she had to help others. Becca and Tanner donated Blakely’s cord blood, knowing firsthand the lifesaving ability those stem cells hold for gravely ill patients.

And then there were 3

On the heels of such a whirlwind journey, the family of 3 is ready to enjoy everyday life. For Becca, that means finding a new, better normal.

“Going through this pregnancy honestly made me better,” she notes. “Usually, if I have a symptom of any kind, I think it must be cancer. When I was pregnant, I realized that all sorts of symptoms could be attributed to carrying a baby. It helped me get my mindset back to something else. It helped me tell myself, ‘I’m cured, and it will be OK.’ My focus now is to spend time with Blakely and watch her grow.”

Down the road, if Becca and Tanner want to try for another baby, they have 4 frozen embryos remaining.

Right now, they are enjoying each miraculous moment their baby brings.

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