Preserving Fertility After a Cancer Diagnosis and Before Treatment
Hearing the words “you have cancer” can be one of the most shocking, scary and life-changing experiences for anyone. Your first instinct may be to do everything within your power to get rid of the cancer as soon as possible. While seeking treatment right away is crucial in that fight, it may be worthwhile to pause briefly and think about your life after cancer treatments.
“Most people get focused on the diagnosis and treatment of their cancer so much so that they don’t think about their future fertility. Cancer treatments are remarkably better, and we have an increasing number of men and women who are cured and later want to conceive,” said Dr. Larry Barmat, a reproductive endocrinology and fertility physician at Abington Reproductive Medicine.
Although not everyone decides to have children after beating cancer, many people want to at least have the option. While cancer treatments have proven to save many lives, they can affect your ability to have children.
Treatments Can Affect Fertility in Men and Women
“Chemotherapy is designed to basically kill cells that are dividing. Cancer cells are rapidly dividing cells. Chemotherapy doesn’t just kill cancer cells though – it also kills normal, healthy cells,” Dr. Barmat explained.
Women are born with all of the eggs they’ll ever have and, as they age, the number and quality of the eggs decrease. Chemotherapy can damage and accelerate the loss of a woman’s eggs leading to a decrease in her fertility and sometimes premature ovarian failure, Dr. Barmat explained.
Chemotherapy isn’t the only cancer treatment that can impact fertility.
“[Radiation] is designed to kill cells. The goal of most radiation therapy is to slow down the growth and target the radiation to where the cancer is. If the cancer is in the pelvic or lower region of the body, there’s going to be some impact on the ovaries. It can damage or reduce the number of eggs that are viable,” Dr. Barmat said.
Cancer treatments don’t just only impact women’s fertility – chemotherapy or radiation near a man’s testicles can reduce his sperm count, he said.
However, treating cancer doesn’t mean men have to forgo their opportunity to have children either.
Options for Preserving Fertility
“With men, before they take any chemotherapy, it's recommended they provide sperm to freeze,” Dr. Barmat said. Women can also take measures before their cancer treatments to preserve their fertility.
One option for women is the medication Lupron.
“If a woman is prescribed that type of medication before chemotherapy and during therapy, it may reduce the damage to her ovaries because it reduces the cellular activity within the ovaries,” he said.
Women also have the option of preserving their eggs and using them later, when their treatments are complete and they’re ready to have children.
“To preserve your eggs, you need to take fertility medication to stimulate ovaries to produce eggs,” Dr. Barmat said. Once the ovaries produce multiple mature eggs, doctors will go in and remove them.
“We can freeze the eggs. Or, if a woman is in a committed relationship, we can generate embryos and then freeze them,” he said.
If you want to preserve your fertility before starting cancer treatments, talk to your doctor, oncologist or a reproductive specialist to discuss your options. They will take into consideration the type of cancer you have, your age and the type of treatment you’re going to have. All of this will determine what the best approach is for preserving your fertility.
Being diagnosed with cancer and the treatments can be overwhelming, but if you’re at all concerned about your fertility, don’t wait to talk to your doctors. Getting all of the information about your options before your treatment will help you make an informed decision.
For more information, please call Abington Reproductive Medicine at 215-887-2010.