Having Babies After Cancer
Getting pregnant is often the last consideration when a person is diagnosed with cancer. However, if a man or woman plans to have children in the future, precautions should be taken to preserve fertility. Oncofertility combines the fields of oncology and reproductive endocrinology to allow individuals with cancer to store eggs and sperm for use after treatment.
Effects on female fertility
Many cancer therapies can cause female infertility. If surgery is required for a tumor in a reproductive organ, such as the uterus, the removal can impact a woman’s ability to carry children later in life. With ovarian cancer, an oophorectomy is often performed to remove the ovaries containing the eggs needed to get pregnant. Radiation aimed at the ovaries can destroy some or all of the eggs present. Chemotherapy works to kill rapidly dividing cells in the body. Although this is great for treating cancerous cells, quickly dividing cells in the ovaries can also be damaged, leading to premature menopause.
The impact on male fertility
Men can also suffer from fertility problems while undergoing cancer treatment. Chemotherapy is known to damage sperm-forming cells called germ cells in young boys and can also damage fully formed sperm in men. Radiation therapy can lower sperm counts and testosterone levels, while hormone therapy can decrease sperm production. Surgery for cancers of the reproductive organs can also lead to male infertility.
Preserving sperm and eggs
After being diagnosed with cancer, a patient will have many appointments to make. Meeting with a reproductive endocrinologist is essential for people interested in having kids after treatment to determine how best to preserve fertility. Cryopreservation will likely be recommended. For women, this means egg freezing, and for men, this means sperm banking. Men can easily make a sperm donation with just 1-2 appointments required, while women require more planning. To retrieve eggs, the doctor may recommend a woman start certain fertility medications and will need to plan for retrieval at an optimal point in the cycle.
Treat or retrieve first?
In many cases, the oncofertility process needs to start right away. The oncologist will be eager to begin necessary cancer treatment, while the reproductive endocrinologist will want to preserve fertility before any radiation or chemotherapy is initiated. Depending on the type and stage of the cancer, the team should work together to determine the optimal timing for egg retrieval or sperm donation and any necessary cancer treatment.
Navigating cancer treatment and fertility treatment at the same time can be challenging. However, planning for a future baby is essential for men and women who want a family after cancer. Cryopreservation allows for the freezing of healthy eggs and sperm before chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery is started. With future babies stored safely away, cancer patients have one less thing to worry about.