Receiving a cancer diagnosis is distressing enough, without the added implications it can have for fertility. Cancer treatment can impact fertility in different ways. So medical teams will make it a priority to present you with all the facts about cancer and fertility preservation as early as possible, to help you make informed decisions.
For newly diagnosed patients, whether you want to preserve your fertility for future parenthood, you’re actively trying to conceive, or you’re currently pregnant, it’s very important to ask for – and discuss in detail – all the choices available, plus next steps and options for holistic support.
Here at TRB, we’ve been working closely with IVF Life, a state-of-the-art fertility clinic with a presence across Europe. Their team of medical professionals have lots of experience in offering support and creating treatment plans for cancer patients on their journey to parenthood, so you can get the very best care for your unique diagnosis and situation
How does cancer treatment affect fertility?
Whatever your situation, the reproductive system is a incredibly complex. Successful conception relies on many processes including egg supply, uterine health and hormone levels. If one or more of these processes is disrupted, it can cause or exacerbate fertility issues.
It’s important to note that not all cancers necessarily affect fertility, but that the treatments involved in tackling it may impact long-term fertility. Cancer treatment that targets the reproductive organs, areas around them like the abdomen, pelvis or spine, or the hormone-producing pituitary gland, can all lead to fertility problems.
Of course, a cancer diagnosis brings with it a tremendous sense of urgency, but it’s important to try not to panic and take a look at your options.
Radiotherapy and chemotherapy
Radiation uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells; chemo uses medicine to stop cancer cells from reproducing – both can have a serious impact on your fertility.
Radiation is only likely to affect fertility if the ovaries, uterus or testes are targeted, and it also depends on the dose administered.
Chemotherapy can prevent your ovaries from working properly, reducing the number of eggs in store. Some types and measures of chemo treatments can also trigger early menopause, especially in older patients. A third of all women going through chemotherapy will stop having periods during treatment – a situation known as ‘temporary infertility’, although it is still possible to get pregnant at this time.
Other treatments that can impact fertility include hormonal therapy, typically prescribed to breast cancer patients, and cancer surgery to the cervix, womb or pituitary gland. Surgery that involves removing reproductive organs will of course have a dramatic effect on your ability to become a parent, but this is not always definitive.
In some cases, fertility-sparing surgery is used – for example, involving the removal of just one ovary rather than both.
Cancer also causes sperm damage in men, but as men continue to produce sperm throughout their lives the impact of treatment on their future fertility tends to be lesser than it is for women.
Cancer and fertility preservation – what to do (and when)
Can you have a baby if you have cancer? It’s a big question, but yes, it is possible to get pregnant following a cancer diagnosis. The severity and type of cancer will play a big part in which route you take, as will your current fertility situation. For cancer survivors, assuming there are no serious pre-existing fertility issues, many patients are able to conceive as normal around six months after completing chemotherapy.
Many cancer patients take the route of fertility preservation to insure against the effects of treatment. For women who are losing eggs, or for either men or women preparing for reproductive organ surgery, such as a hysterectomy in ovarian cancer treatment, time is of the essence.
In these cases, medical experts will advise egg or sperm freezing. The process of retrieving and freezing the eggs is usually the same as it would be in an IVF patient.
Find a clinic who specialise
Your first stop is a reputable, experienced fertility clinic. IVF Life, are known for delivering on the science as well as human-first support (so important, when navigating cancer and fertility care). A cancer diagnosis is a huge blow for intended parents of either gender, so we’d strongly recommend you approach a clinic with specialised experience in this area.
Ask ALL the questions
You deserve to get answers to all your questions and your clinician should be able to answer them. In your initial consultation, your clinician will address your own personal fertility situation, looking at the nature of your current cancer treatment, which stage you’re at, and plan out the next steps with a tailored plan to reach your goals.
Seek emotional support
For IVF Life, patient wellbeing and mental health is paramount. Their team of clinicians are trained in providing expert care and support for anyone settling into treatment with a cancer diagnosis, or history.
From there building a close support network is a vital part of this journey. Close friends and family may be your go-to, but for many patients it’s important to speak to other people – maybe anonymously – who understand first-hand what they’re going through. The Ribbon Box community is a warm and friendly place where people can post a question and get support – whether it’s reaching out around cancer and fertility experiences, preservation in any sense, or something else.