After a bout with cancer, this man dealt with infertility — and he’s OK with that
In 1994 at age 15, Daniel Johnson* was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin lymphoma. When he went into remission at age 17 after multiple rounds of chemotherapy, tests showed the treatments had devastated his sperm count.
Infertility was in the back of the now-37-year-old New Yorker’s mind during his teenage years but didn’t come to the forefront until he started considering children around five years ago. “After the chemo, the tests came back negative — there were no sperm,” Johnson tells Yahoo Health. “Then I got married, and my wife wanted kids, so I went to a specialist. It was just like dealing with the cancer: This is the reality of the situation.”
He and his wife weighed the options. There are several for men suffering from infertility, now considering children after cancer. The first is a procedure to extract any healthy sperm that may still remain. “The idea is that the testicles are like a book, and you go through page by page looking for lost sperm,” says Johnson. If sperm are found, then doctors can do in vitro fertilization (IVF) — something neither Johnson nor his wife wanted to do.
The couple also looked at adoption. Although they strongly considered it, they ultimately decided to pass on that option as well. “It’s a long process,” says Johnson. “I have an adopted sister and cousins, and they do struggle with a sense of identity. My wife also really wanted to experience a pregnancy.”
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According to psychiatrist Georgia Witkin, PhD, an assistant clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive science at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, a sperm donor is the natural choice for couples like the Johnsons. “For the most part, couples go through fertility issues — not men, not women,” Witkin tells Yahoo Health. “For those interested in the wife making a flesh-and-blood baby, sperm donorship is very exciting.”
Johnson and his wife used the same donor to conceive both their 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son by way of the United States’ largest sperm bank, California Cryobank. “They send a list of the donor’s health, hobbies and interests, celebrities that they look like — and also why they chose to become a donor, which I really liked,” says Johnson.
The pair chose a donor with qualities they hoped their children might possess, as well as traits that are similar to Johnson’s — athletic, smart, Irish background. “We also wanted someone where, genetically, there weren’t a lot of issues,” he explains.
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There is a stigma surrounding sperm donorship, but Johnson was always sure of this choice. “People say some pretty outrageous things,” Johnson laughs. “One was, ‘You will never love this child like a biological child.’”
Despite a lengthy vetting process for donorship, there are still misconceptions to dispel, says Jamin Brahmbhatt, MD, co-director of the PUR Clinic and a specialist on issues relating to men’s health, who sees men like Johnson on a regular basis. “It’s not your sperm, so there are often concerns,” he tells Yahoo Health. “Does the person I’m getting sperm from have bad genetics? HIV? Selection is very strict, and they might have a better genetic pool than you do,” he says.
For maybe a moment, Johnson contemplated whether he might be missing out on something. But since his mom and dad had both biological children and an adopted child, he was able to ask knowledgeable sources about their experience. “I said, ‘Is there a difference?’ And they said no,” he explains. “I can’t imagine not having the kids that I have now, and I never doubted how I would feel toward them.”
Brahmbhatt says that if you are a man diagnosed with cancer, it’s important to visit a fertility specialist prior to treatment. “Whoever is diagnosing the cancer should be having that discussion, but if it’s not happening, you have to be your own advocate,” he says. “Banking sperm is important in young men. Patients are living longer after a diagnosis of cancer or lymphoma.”
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Still, due to young age or a rush to have chemo, Brahmbhatt sees plenty of men who haven’t preserved sperm. “A lot of them don’t know that the treatments have destroyed their fertility,” he says. “They come in with, ‘Oh, man. If I’d have only known…’ But once we get to acceptance, then we can give them options.” (Brahmbhatt suggests checking out the Livestrong Foundation’s page on male infertility for more information.)
Acceptance is a matter of perspective, Witkin insists. “When you lose your sense of control, your stress goes up,” she says. “What I find distinguishes the couples who are more stressed than excited lies in how they define parenting.
“I always make the distinction between fathering a child and being a dad,” Witkin continues. “Fathering a child simply involves instructions for a woman’s body to grow a baby. Being a dad is putting that child to bed, paying for things, being there for them — children are generally very clear on that.”
And although he experienced a few emotional bumps in the beginning, Johnson doesn’t regret anything about the way he chose to become a dad. “There were times it was tough coming to grips that I wasn’t going to be the biological father,” he says. “I could have chased the dream a little more. But at the end of the day, it was more important that the kids were healthy and my wife was happy.”
*Name has been changed