Will I be able to have children after cancer treatment?
Having children might be the last thing on your mind – or the thought of losing the option might be devastating. It’s important to know that some types of cancer, and cancer treatments, can affect your fertility.
Please note: in this article we refer to men and women. In this context, we are referring to your biological make-up rather than how you identify as a person. We understand the two may not always match up, but this terminology is used to make sure our information is clear and inclusive, and the options presented are based on what may be possible for you medically. If you have undergone or started gender reassignment, it’s always best to speak with your consultant or fertility team to get the full picture.
Being confronted with this massive dilemma after your cancer diagnosis, and at this stage of your life, must feel wrong and unfair. It’s not always possible to predict whether your fertility will be affected, or if it’s temporary or permanent – it depends on your situation.
Fertility preservation treatment might allow you to have children in the future. This treatment may or may not be the right choice for you, but you’ll get a better sense of this by exploring your options. It often needs to happen quite quickly, before you have cancer treatment, which means you may have to make a decision with limited time.
Talk to your nurse or doctor, as they can help you discover the possibilities. Having this open and frank discussion, and helping you access appropriate fertility preservation treatment, is seen as an important part of good cancer care.
How will my fertility be affected?
In women, it depends on the type of cancer treatment and which parts of the body are involved. Some types of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, or hormone treatment can affect the ovaries, damaging eggs. This can lead to an early menopause. If your womb (uterus) or vagina is being treated, this can also cause fertility problems.
In men, some kinds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy can reduce or stop sperm production. This may be temporary, but for some men it is permanent. Radiotherapy or surgery might lower your sex drive or it make difficult to have an erection. It depends on the treatment and what part of your body is involved. Hormone treatment or chemotherapy can also affect your sex drive, erections and fertility.
What does fertility preservation treatment mean for me?
If you are male, you might be able to freeze some of your sperm before your cancer treatment starts, in case you want to father children in the future.
If you are female, you might be able to save some of your eggs before your cancer treatment starts. These frozen eggs can be used to try for a child in the future. Freezing an embryo (an egg that is fertilised with a man’s sperm) may be another option. If you freeze an embryo, permission is needed from both partners at every stage, including if you want to you use it in the future.
Sometimes it is possible to freeze tissue from an ovary that contains immature eggs. This tissue can then be placed back in your body after cancer treatment, to try and get your ovaries working again. Ovary tissue freezing is only available in a few centres in the UK: if you want to find out more, ask your cancer team whether this option is available. It’s still seen as a technology that’s in development.
What if I’ve already had my cancer treatment, or am in the middle of it?
It’s hard to know what will happen for each individual. Whether you’re able to have children will depend on the type of cancer and what kind of treatment you had for it. If you’re in doubt, you can have fertility tests after your treatment is finished. You can ask your GP or cancer follow-up team to arrange this.
If you feel your fertility was never discussed with you properly and you’re mid-treatment, make sure you go back to your consultant or someone on your team that you trust. It’s important that any questions or concerns you have are addressed. There are lots of organisations who help people with fertility problems, so don’t feel like you have to go it alone.
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