Cancer Therapy and Women’s Fertility
Each year, cancer is estimated to occur in 113 per 100,000 women under age 50 in the United States. Treatment of cancer has improved dramatically over the past several years, and it is estimated that 77% of patients under 45 survive at least 5 years. The trend toward delaying childbearing means that many patients will not have had children when they are diagnosed. While there is recognition that cancer therapy can affect a patient’s fertility, less than 25% of oncologists inform their patients about their risks and options.
Chemotherapy or radiation therapy for malignant and nonmalignant diseases often results in premature ovarian failure and infertility. One of the strongest predictors of emotional well being in cancer survivors, besides sexual function, appearance, and employability, is feeling healthy enough to be a good parent. Cancer survivors are often fearful that their history of cancer or its treatment will have an adverse impact on their offspring by placing them at risk for malignancy, congenital anomalies, or impaired growth and development. They are also concerned about the risks of cancer recurrence, infertility, miscarriage, and achieving a successful pregnancy outcome.
Despite these concerns, surveys have reported that fewer than 60 percent of respondents had received information about fertility after cancer treatment. There are several methods to preserve fertility in women diagnosed with cancer.
Fertility preservation requires individualization. The optimal approach depends upon the type of cancer treatment (radiation versus chemotherapy), time available, patient’s age, type of cancer, and whether the patient has a partner. However, there are no large randomized clinical trials evaluating the majority of the interventions described below, nor are there long-term follow-up studies assessing the possible impact of fertility treatment on cancer survivors.
One option includes In Vitro Fertilization and embryo cryopreservation. Women who must undergo chemotherapy or radiation therapy may go through early menopause. In vitro fertilization and embryo freezing will allow a woman to delay conception until she has completed her treatment, and deemed in remission, even if treatment causes early menopause. There are several steps to this including hormone therapy, egg retrieval, fertilization, laboratory development of the embryo, and freezing. Frozen Embryos can survive for many years and once the patient is in remission and ready to use the embryos, the process of transferring the embryos can begin.
Any woman who has gone through normal puberty and still has regular menstrual cycles may be a candidate for embryo freezing. Success rates decline as women get older, and are best if women are under 38 years old. Some women may have poor ovarian function even at a young age, but fertility tests can predict success rates. Women who do not have a partner may have the option to freeze eggs. This new technology has led to live births, but is still considered experimental, and requires a specialized embryology laboratory.
Egg Donation is also another option. Egg donation allows a woman who has gone through menopause to carry a pregnancy. The process is similar to in vitro fertilization, except that a fertile woman (a relative, friend, or anonymous donor) is given fertility drugs to stimulate multiple eggs to develop. Once the eggs are harvested, they are fertilized with the infertile woman’s partner’s sperm (or donor sperm) and the embryos grown in the laboratory for several days.
The infertile woman receives hormone therapy to develop a normal uterine environment, and then the resulting embryos are placed in the infertile woman’s uterus. Hormone therapy is maintained for several weeks and then pregnancy progresses normally.
Cancer Therapy and Men’s Fertility
Male cancer patients have long been able to preserve their fertility by freezing their sperm. Unfortunately, sperm quality is often affected by cancer, and there may be poor sperm quality at the time of diagnosis. Sperm Banking is a great option for men. Most large cities have sperm banks that can freeze sperm. If a sperm bank is not located near your home, you can find sperm banks across the country that can provide long term sperm storage. The Internet is a great resource, and all reputable sperm banks have detailed websites.
Options for fertility treatment depend on how cancer therapy has affected the man’s fertility, and how normal the semen analysis is after treatment. Options may include artificial insemination with washed sperm if the sperm is relatively unaffected by cancer treatment, or if frozen sperm are available from before cancer therapy.
Insemination with donor sperm can allow conception when there are no sperm present after cancer treatment. If there are any sperm available, even very poor quality or extremely low numbers of sperm, than in vitro fertilization can allow conception. Once the eggs have been harvested from the patient’s wife, the embryologist can pick up a single sperm and inject each egg to ensure normal fertilization. Live birth rates are excellent with this procedure, and are largely dependent on the age of the patient’s wife. In addition, adoption remains an option for family building. There are local and international adoption agencies, and private adoption through an attorney may also be possible. Unfortunately, adoption can be very expensive, and international adoption laws often change, causing frustration for infertile patients.
All of the above are viable and real options for cancer survivors who wish to have a family. As the oncology community becomes more aware of fertility preservation options, these are offered to more patients. There are advocacy organizations that can help, such as the Lance Armstrong Foundation, and Fertile Hope, to assist patients as they negotiate treatment options in their quest for a family.
Carolyn R. Kaplan, M.D. is Director of In Vitro Fertilization at Georgia Reproductive Specialists and specializes in the initial diagnosis of infertility, egg donation, alternative approaches to the control of menopause and the holistic approach to infertility treatment. Visit www.ivf.com for more information.