When Chris Biblis was diagnosed with leukemia at age 16, doctors knew he’d survive only with radiation treatment. Unfortunately, Biblis’s testicles had to be radiated, too. Chris would be infertile.
It was 1987. Back home in Alabama, Biblis’s mother happened to read a news article about British doctors who froze sperm. She decided she wanted her son to freeze his sperm, too, to give him a chance of later having a family.
“I sort of thought it was a good idea,” recalls Biblis, now 40, “but it was totally embarrassing. I had to drive several hours with my father to give the specimen.”
Biblis’s unusual choice paid off: last year, he and his wife welcomed a healthy baby girl, Stella. She was conceived using Biblis’s 22-year-old sperm. “It was like any other in-vitro (test-tube) pregnancy”, explains Chris’s wife, Melodie.
“When we decided to do it, we didn’t realize that it was somehow unusual to use 22-year-old sperm.”
That’s because in 1987, sperm-freezing of any kind was highly unusual. But today, young male cancer patients are routinely asked to give sperm specimens, to be stored until they’re ready to start a family.
The demand has grown since 80 per cent of children and adolescents with cancer now survive.
“Having babies is often the last thing on teenage boys’ minds,” explains Dr. Richard Wing, who heads Reproductive Endocrinology Associates of Charlotte, North Carolina.
“But chemotherapy and radiation often result in men having no sperm, and frozen sperm can last for decades.”
Wing helped the Biblises conceive. Today, female cancer survivors, too, have better chances of conceiving. Eggs can now be frozen using rapid-freezing technology that makes them more viable; about one fifth of frozen eggs result in pregnancies.
“But women can’t just provide eggs for freezing,” explains Wing. “It takes two-three weeks to prepare their ovaries for ovulation, and the eggs’ viability depend on how far the cancer has gone.”
In the past, young single women with cancer faced the dilemma of freezing their eggs with little chance of success or fertilizing their eggs using a sperm donor. But even with optimistic prospects of post-cancer parenthood, many turn down their only chance.
When Chris Biblis delivered his sperm sample, he had no thought of his little Stella, now teething.
“I feel lucky to be alive after cancer,” he says.
“But I feel more lucky being a father.”