Image for fertility issues article Being diagnosed with cancer is a life-altering event. One of the first questions people diagnosed with cancer may ask is, “Will I live?” For many people, the answer to that question is “yes,” thanks to advances in the detection and treatment of several cancers. But undergoing treatment can bring with it a whole host of new questions, including, for many people, “Will I still be able to have children?”

Here is a look at how a cancer diagnosis may affect a woman’s fertility and what women with cancer can do if they want to have children.

How Cancer Treatment Can Affect Fertility

There are a variety of ways in which cancer treatment can affect fertility:

  • Surgery—Surgical removal of cancerous lesions in the areas of the cervix, ovaries, endometrium, and uterus may result in infertility. Factors such as the stage and spread of the cancer often dictate how extensive the surgery is, and, therefore, how much of an impact it may have on fertility.
  • Radiation—In some cases, cancerous lesions on reproductive organs, such as the ovaries, are not surgically removed, but rather treated with radiation. In addition to killing the cancer cells, radiation may also damage healthy cells, thereby disrupting the function of the organs and possibly causing infertility.
  • Chemotherapy—Unlike radiation, which is generally targeted directly to the area of the body with cancer, chemotherapy travels throughout the body in the bloodstream to kill cancer cells. As a result, it can also damage the reproductive system (even if the cancer is not present in the reproductive organs). Risk will vary based on several factors, including the type and dose of chemotherapy drug being administered.

Options for Preserving Fertility

According to Fertile Hope, a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to be a comprehensive fertility preservation resource for patients whose medical treatments present the risk of infertility,” there are some procedures being studied for their ability to preserve fertility in women with cancer. Some are still experimental and their feasibility and appropriateness will vary from patient to patient. Talk to your doctor to see if any of these procedures may be an option for you.

  • Ovarian transposition—This involves moving one or both ovaries away from the radiation field prior to treatment to minimize radiation exposure and damage to the ovaries. Sometimes the ovaries can be transposed behind the uterus or even onto the woman’s thighs.
  • Radical trachelectomy—This procedure, used for patients with early stage cervical cancer, involves removal of the cervix while preserving the uterus. The problem here is that the cervix is the lowest portion of the uterus and removal of this portion of the uterus will likely result in the inability of the uterus to maintain the pregnancy.
  • Freezing of embryos—This procedure involves the removal of eggs, which are then fertilized via in vitro fertilization and then frozen for future implantation.
  • Freezing of unfertilized eggs—This procedure involves administering hormones to foster the development of follicles, after which unfertilized eggs are removed and frozen for future use.
  • Freezing of ovarian tissue—This procedure involves removing an ovary and freezing small pieces of the ovarian tissue as a way to preserve eggs.
  • Hormonal treatment—This involves taking hormones in the form of birth control pills or gonadotropin-releasing hormone along with chemotherapy, which may reduce the damage the chemotherapy does to the reproductive system.
  • Radiation shielding—This involves shielding reproductive organs to reduce the radiation they receive.

Deciding What Is Best for You

When facing cancer—or any serious illness for that matter, it is important to remember that each person’s situation is unique. Not all options for preserving fertility may be appropriate or feasible in all women.

If you have been diagnosed with cancer and you are concerned about your fertility, talk to your doctor and discuss in detail all the potential risks and benefits of certain treatments, including, but not limited to, the treatment’s potential effects on your fertility. Your doctor may be able to offer you ways of possibly preserving your fertility during your treatment. You may also want to ask for a referral to a social worker or other family planning specialist who can help you learn about other parenthood options as well, such as adoption.

Fortunately, many cancer caregivers recognize that successfully treating cancer means not only longer life, but quality of life as well. And for many cancer patients, the potential for parenthood is vital to their quality of life.