“You’ve got cancer.” Those are three words nobody wants to hear. And if you are a teenager or young adult with a bucket list of goals and dreams for your future, those words can be really scary. So too, if you are the parent of a young child who has been diagnosed with cancer, the news can be especially upsetting.
While the most important and immediate concerns should be related to fighting—and beating—the cancer, there are other considerations that come into play. Concerns about fertility, for example, are very common and critical, particularly in planning for “life after cancer.”
It’s important to understand that while cancer treatments can be very effective, they also can cause side effects that harm the ability to reproduce. According to the American Cancer Society, the loss of reproductive function is sometimes temporary. However, many people do not regain fertility after cancer treatments.
Cancer patients and their loved ones can benefit greatly by learning about the fertility risks and available options before treatment begins. Here are some important facts everyone who is facing a cancer diagnosis should know about the emerging field of oncofertility.
What is oncofertility?
Oncofertility is a new term that describes a team approach to assessing, planning and providing fertility preservation options to young men, women and children who have been diagnosed with cancer—and other serious diseases—and who must undergo treatments that threaten their fertility. In oncofertility, a reproductive endocrinologist will work together with the cancer care team to preserve the patient’s fertility while their disease is being treated.
It’s important to know the facts. And your options.
Cancer survival rates among children and young adults have steadily increased over the past 40 years. As a result, “life after cancer” is a reality for many young people who can happily plan for a future that includes brilliant careers and a family of their own someday.
Although it is true that some cancers affect the reproductive organs, such as the uterus or testicles, most cancers do not directly cause infertility. Instead, infertility is caused by the treatment for cancer. Some surgeries and many forms of chemotherapy or radiation therapy to the pelvis may severely compromise ovarian or uterine function, harm eggs, or damage sperm quantity and motility.
When cancer patients receive fertility information early in the process, they have more options available to them. Conversely, those who learn about the effects of cancer treatments on their fertility after the fact may experience tremendous regret and sorrow.
Egg, embryo and sperm freezing.
In the past, there were limited options for female cancer patients in regard to fertility preservation. Today, we can offer them an option called “vitrification, which essentially means freezing eggs (or embryos that are created with partner or donor sperm). The entire process takes less than a month from start to finish.
Here are the steps. After an initial consultation and a sonogram exam with a reproductive endocrinologist, an oncofertility plan will be designed to meet the patient’s specific needs. Ultrasound monitoring will be done for a few weeks to help determine the ideal date for egg retrieval. The procedure only takes about 30 minutes under mild sedation. Once the physician retrieves the eggs, an embryologist will freeze the eggs (or embryos) and store them for future use.
For men of any age faced with a cancer diagnosis, fertility labs offer sperm freezing and storage before cancer treatment. Testicular tissue freezing is another new and promising option indicated for prepubescent boys.
Today, thousands of young men, women and children around the world have been given fertility options. And babies have been born to healthy moms and dads who beat cancer and now face a future that includes children of their own.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, talk to your oncologist or a reproductive endocrinologist about the fertility risks and options. You should also make an appointment with a fertility specialist if you are a cancer survivor and would like assistance in conceiving with the help of advanced reproductive technology or alternative options for family building, such as donor eggs and donor sperm.