Fertility Experts Make Cancer Survivor’s Dream of Family a Reality

By Bryan Roth
June 20, 2022
Sasha and Billy Zarzour pose with their children.

The Zarzour family, from left: Billy, sons Henry and Bobby, and Sasha.

Overview

After two rounds of cancer treatment, Sasha Zarzour didn’t think she’d be able to get pregnant. But with specialized care at the Duke Fertility Center and constant support from infertility specialists, Sasha and her husband, Billy, found hope.

“We wanted a family for so long and to know it may not happen was a struggle,” she said. “But to have a team who have helped so many people have a baby and who know how to support you, it helps you push through.”

Cherishing Small Moments

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In January 2022, Sasha watched her almost 2-year-old son, Bobby, solve a puzzle by placing animal pieces into matching cutouts on a board. “It seems so minor,” she said with a laugh, “but I texted my husband: ‘Bobby's a genius.’”

Since Bobby’s birth, many things have been extra special for Sasha and Billy. Treatment in 2013 for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that impacts the body’s lymphatic system, made it hard for the couple to conceive. When Sasha was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma a second time in 2019, she froze eggs before receiving cancer treatment at Duke, then went to the Duke Fertility Center once her cancer was in remission to try to get pregnant. Bobby was born about a year later.

Keeping Hope

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When Sasha underwent chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant at Duke to treat her cancer three years ago, she and Billy started to lose hope that they could start a family. The physical and psychological side effects of her cancer treatments made it hard to stay positive. 

"The doctors kept telling us they wouldn't let us go through something if they didn't think a baby was possible," she said. "I knew even if it was hard, they wanted what was best for me, my husband, and our future family."

The specialists used sophisticated technology to thaw her eggs and performed in vitro fertilization (IVF), a fertility treatment that placed a fertilized egg in her uterus. Sasha gave birth to Bobby in May 2020. 

"No Single Way to Build a Family"

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The Duke Fertility Center helps couples facing a variety of infertility challenges and offer options like medication, IVF, or artificial insemination. The clinic also provides nutritional and psychological counseling.

Unique onco-fertility options are available for cancer survivors like Sasha. Working together, oncologists and fertility experts plan for pregnancy once cancer is in remission. Treatments include egg retrieval, hormone therapy, and specialized procedures like ovarian tissue preservation, during which healthy ovary tissue is removed and frozen before cancer treatment. It is then transplanted once cancer treatments are completed to aid with pregnancy.

“It’s so important to care for the entire well-being of every person we see,” said Shelby Neal, MD, a Duke Health reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist. “Facing infertility is not easy, and there’s no single way to build a family. It’s about finding solutions that care for the different needs of each person.”

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Talking to Experts Always Bests Dr. Google

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“I obviously Googled things about infertility but Googling things and sitting down with the professional are very different,” Sasha said. “It’s so easy to think you can find all the answers, but I had no idea how detailed Duke fertility doctors would be to understand so many things about me and my health.”

Conversations about the amount and size of ovarian follicles, number of eggs available, and scheduling of egg implantation seemed overwhelming at times, “but when doctors tell you the next step and act positive, it gives you the confidence and trust to be able to say, okay, ‘let's keep going,’” she said.

A year after giving birth to Bobby, Sasha and Billy had what they describe as a “surprise” pregnancy. They had their second son, Henry, in October 2021 despite thinking they would never be able to get pregnant again.

"It brings me such joy to watch them grow up and learn things," Sasha said. "We were never certain it could happen. But we were secure with our doctors. The high level of care gave us this family."

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