Pediatric Cancer Survivor Celebrates Fatherhood

Fertility preservation allowed cancer survivor Jason to freeze his sperm before undergoing the sterilizing effects of chemo and radiation.

cancer survivor Jason with his wife Emily and their baby| CU OB-GYN | Denver, CO
Jason and his wife, Emily, celebrated the arrival of their son, Sam, in October of 2016.

“My story starts in 1995,” Jason begins. “I woke up in the ICU at Children’s Hospital Colorado with over 170 staples in my back. They had removed three of my ribs and a portion of my lungs. It was at that point that I learned I had cancer.”

Through a haze of pain medications, lingering anesthesia and a flurry of hospital staff rushing in and out of the recovery room, 20-year-old Jason struggled to co­mprehend his diagnosis: Ewing’s sarcoma. This rare and aggressive form of pediatric bone cancer had grown softball-sized, clinging to his ribcage and causing the debilitating back pain that motivated his initial visit to a doctor.

Just months before the operation, Jason was a healthy college athlete with a bright future. Then he found himself trying in earnest to fully wrap his mind around what lay ahead of him.

Fertility preservation ices cancer survivor’s family plans

“The doctors told me that in five days I needed to start a chemotherapy regimen,” he recalls. “This would leave me sterile, so they talked to me about fertility preservation – a program that was new in ’95. The furthest thing from my mind at that point was having a family, but my parents and the medical staff encouraged me to go forward with it.”

After nearly a year of chemotherapy followed by two months of targeted radiation, no signs of cancer were detected in Jason’s body. The next five years were punctuated by follow-up visits and watchful scanning to ensure that the cancer had not returned.

In his mid-20s, Jason was given fantastic news: He was officially cured of cancer. And his cryopreserved sperm would be waiting for him if and when he decided to have children sometime down the road.

First comes love, then comes marriage

Fast forward a decade or so, and Jason found himself employed by the hospital that saved his life and preserved his fertility. A pediatric cancer survivor with a background in emergency medical services (EMS), he was hired as the EMS Program manager at Children’s Hospital Colorado. In this role, Jason would oversee training efforts to equip ambulance providers with the know-how to care for children in medical emergencies.

During a hospital fundraising event in the summer of 2012, Jason met Emily, also a hospital employee. As they worked together on a project, the couple fell fast in love. They got married on New Year’s Eve of 2014.

“After we got married we started talking about having children right away,” says Jason. “We both love kids and really wanted to have a family.”

Jason and Emily began to research fertility clinics in the Denver area, seeking the best possible chance at success using Jason’s frozen sperm that he’d banked years ago.

“The Children’s Hospital has a highly-regarded maternal-fetal health program that’s affiliated with the University of Colorado,” Jason explains. “In conversations with the program staff, Dr. Nanette Santoro’s name kept coming up.”

“Never go to bed with a question or concern.”

It wasn’t long before the couple scheduled a consultation appointment at the former CU Advanced Reproductive Medicine. There they began to unpack their options and formulate a plan.

“When you’re at the start of this journey, it’s daunting,” Jason says. “There are so many questions and so much uncertainty. Dr. Santoro understood our situation, and was very empathetic. She was realistic while also being hopeful and encouraging.”

Jason and Emily initially considered intrauterine insemination (IUI), but knowing they had limited sperm samples available, they ultimately decided to undergo in vitro fertilization (IVF) to up their odds of success. Throughout the IVF process, the couple leaned heavily on Dr. Santoro’s insight and support.

“We knew that she was the director of this program at an academic institution, and yet she gave us her contact information,” Jason recalls. “I can’t tell you how many times we emailed her. She was incredibly responsive. She would always tell us, ‘Never go to bed with a question or concern.’”

The long-awaited introduction

When it came time to perform Emily’s egg retrieval, the couple was thrilled to learn that they ended up with 18 eggs. Soon it would be time for the eggs to be fertilized with Jason’s long-preserved sperm. Since this microscopic matchmaking was many years in the making, the couple wanted to make sure that event had the appropriate fanfare.

“We worked with an amazing embryologist named David Russell,” says Jason. “We had a small request that he play some Otis Redding and the song ‘Finally’ by CECE Peniston when he was introducing my swim team to Emily’s eggs. We referred to the lab as ‘Club Petri.’”

Russell happily obliged the couple’s request. While undergoing IVF treatment, Jason and Emily’s positivity and sense of humor made what might have been a stressful situation joyful and hope-filled. After Club Petri closed its doors, they ended up with eight embryos. Genetic testing revealed that four of the eight were healthy – two male and two female.

“We were uncomfortable selecting the sex, so we asked them to choose for us,” Jason recalls. “Then, on Valentine’s Day of 2016 we found out that we were expecting a baby boy.”

Fertility preservation is a tangible expression of hope

After a healthy and uneventful pregnancy, Emily gave birth to baby Sam on October 22, 2016, at 7:30 a.m. Not long afterward, newborn Sam was introduced to his grandfather who, as Jason explains it, played an instrumental role in advocating for Jason’s fertility preservation.

“My dad passed away this year,” he says. “But it was so special for him to be able to see us have a family before he passed. He was a key person in helping me choose to preserve my fertility when I was in the hospital, and he got to see the little child that we were able to have.”

Reflecting on his long journey toward fatherhood, Jason encourages anyone considering fertility preservation to pursue it.

“State of mind is so important,” he explains. “Fertility preservation is an act of hope. Through this action, you are choosing to say, ‘After this is over, I’m going to have a family.’”

Today Jason and Emily are savoring the joys of parenthood, knowing their three frozen embryos are waiting for them at ARM should they wish to have more children.

“We’re already starting to have that conversation,” Jason says with excitement. “What’s cool is that there’s the possibility. If I was a betting man, I’d say we’ll be going back to CU OB-GYN.”