A diagnosis of cancer brings many important decisions into a woman’s life. While chemotherapy, radiation and surgery can effectively treat cancer, these treatments may also affect a woman’s fertility. Women undergoing treatment for other diseases (such as lupus) and certain autoimmune disorders (such as rheumatoid arthritis) also risk losing their fertility.
But these treatments don’t have to end a woman’s or even a young girl’s hopes of having a family. Today, women with cancer and other diseases have many options to preserve fertility — before and after treatment.
How Cancer Treatments Can Affect Fertility
For women undergoing radiation treatment to the lower abdomen, there is a risk that the radiation could damage or destroy their ovaries, depending on the size and location of the tumor and the radiation dosage prescribed. When ovarian function is damaged or destroyed, women stop producing female hormones, go into menopause and lose their ability to bear children.
Depending on the woman’s age, the type of chemotherapy prescribed and the dosage, chemotherapy can damage or destroy ovaries while destroying the cancer.
With cancers that affect the female reproductive organs, the best treatment option may be surgery to remove those organs.
Fertility Preservation Techniques
New techniques are providing hope for preserving or restoring fertility in girls and women after cancer treatment. At Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, reproductive specialists, geneticists, oncologists, nurse specialists, laparoscopic surgeons and obstetricians/gynecologists work together to offer the following options:
Medication — If chemotherapy would damage a woman’s ovaries, a medication may be used to temporarily shut down ovarian function, making them less susceptible to the chemotherapy drugs.
In vitro fertilization — IVF involves the fertilization of a woman’s eggs or embryos outside of her body — in a glass laboratory dish. Sperm provided by the male is mixed with eggs that have been removed from the woman’s ovaries. For a woman undergoing chemotherapy or radiation, unfertilized or fertilized eggs (embryos) also can be frozen. At a future time, the frozen eggs or frozen embryos can be transferred to the woman’s uterus, with the hope that pregnancy will occur. Ideally, preparation for harvesting of eggs for IVF should begin at least six weeks before chemotherapy or radiation begins. Depending on the fertility problem, the eggs used in IVF may be the woman’s own eggs or donor eggs from another woman.
Talk to your physician(s) about your treatment and how it may affect your ability to have children.
We will be happy to answer your questions related to preserving fertility for women with cancer and other fertility concerns. Please contact us.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which fertility preservation option is best for me?
Only you and your doctor can decide. The effects of cancer treatment vary depending on the type of chemotherapy you receive or the intensity of your radiation therapy, and the number of eggs remaining in your ovaries before treatment.
If I become pregnant after having cancer, is there a risk that the baby will get cancer?
This is rare, and is seen only when a woman has a genetically inherited type of cancer.
If I become pregnant after having cancer treatment, is there a higher risk of birth defects for my baby?
No. If an egg was able to be fertilized, it’s a healthy egg.
If I get pregnant after having cancer, will the hormones associated with pregnancy cause my cancer to return?
No. Studies show that there is no increased risk of cancer returning if you have a baby.
If I already had chemotherapy and/or radiation and I’m sterile, is there anything that can be done to have a child?
You may wish to consider assisted reproduction therapy methods such as in vitro fertilization or intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) using donor eggs. These services are available through the Reproductive Medicine Center at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin.