How cancer treatments affect women
Women are born with a set number of follicles that will become eggs. Over the years, the reserve of eggs naturally declines through menstruation. Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy can significantly reduce a woman’s ovarian reserve. Studies also show that a woman’s hormone levels decline to a woman in late reproductive age. Furthermore, radiation therapy can reduce the blood supply to the uterus. These, and other health-related complications, can make pregnancy difficult.
Men are at risk too
Chemotherapy or radiation therapy could damage a man’s sperm. Some treatments could also damage the nerves or vessels that transport sperm, creating azoospermia. The effects could be temporary or permanent, with some men needing several years to remake new sperm. Like women, men’s hormone levels may be affected by chemotherapy.
Start with the end in mind
There are so many thoughts after a cancer diagnosis. Starting a family is sometimes at the end of the list. Have a discussion with a doctor about the possibility of pregnancy before and after treatment. In special cases, getting pregnant naturally is possible. However, both parties should wait 6-12 months before trying. More importantly, cancer should not have affected the woman’s uterus and cervix. After the waiting period, the doctor may prescribe hormone medication to improve the chances of pregnancy. If natural pregnancy fails, a fertility specialist can help explore different treatment options.
Consider egg, semen, or embryo freezing
If family planning is top of mind before cancer treatment, a fertility clinic can help with freezing. Women can go through the egg freezing process, which involves extracting eggs, then placing the follicles under cryopreservation. The clinic can do the same for a man’s sperm. In some cases, the clinic can also create and freeze embryos. Then, the hopeful family can reserve the reproductive material for pregnancy at a later time.
Turning to IVF
If the couple is healthy enough for pregnancy, chances are fertility will still be severely affected. At this point, in vitro fertilization, or IVF, can help. With IVF, a fertility clinic can extract healthy eggs from the woman and create embryos with a sperm sample. The best embryo is then implanted into the uterus. If the couple froze embryos, eggs, or sperm before cancer therapy, the clinic could go straight to the implantation stage. On average, IVF has a 39% success rate for women under 35, which declines with age.
ICSI can help
Since cancer therapies affect sperm production, some men will need additional help. Intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) uses one sperm to fertilize the egg manually. This added feature to IVF increases fertilization rates and may improve pregnancy rates for infertile men. For men with no sperm in the semen, a doctor can surgically extract sperm with a TESA or TESE procedure.
Donors, surrogacy and adoption
Some cancer survivors are unable to provide eggs or sperm. Other cases require removal of the cervix or uterus, making natural pregnancy impossible. At this point, there are alternative options based on the circumstance. Egg or sperm donation from a clinic or relative improves the chances of pregnancy. Some couples also need to explore options like surrogacy or adoption. These choices can be difficult and require hard conversations. Proper counseling from the reproductive specialist can help with the best decision.
Fertility treatments make family planning possible
Battling cancer at any stage is an honorable achievement. Unfortunately, the wounds of battle can affect other parts of life, like fertility. There are treatment options available for cancer survivors or couples still hoping to start or grow a family. From embryo freezing and IVF to donors and adoption, starting a family can happen. Speak with a fertility specialist to explore all options.