Having a family after cancer treatment

April 26, 2017 | by Maria Quejada, M.D.

If you or your partner has been diagnosed with cancer before you’ve had a chance to start a family, you may have many questions, since certain cancer treatments can harm reproductive organs and affect fertility. Infertility may be caused by:

  • Low levels of sperm or eggs
  • Low levels of hormones that control reproduction
  • Scarring of the reproductive organs, which prevents conception or normal development of a pregnancy

The good news is having a baby after cancer is possible and can be safe, especially if you work with your doctor.

If you are about to start cancer treatment, it is important to talk to your doctor before your treatment begins about preserving your fertility. Your doctor may suggest meeting with a reproductive specialist who can talk to you about your options, including egg or embryo freezing.

Many physicians recommend waiting up to 2-5 years after treatment ends to have a baby, since cancer may be more likely to return in the earlier years. Waiting this long also allows enough time to fully recover from treatment or for a returning cancer to be caught.

How long a woman should wait to get pregnant depends on a few individual factors:

  • Cancer type and stage
  • Type of treatment
  • A woman’s age

If your body is not producing eggs due to the effects of treatment or if it is not producing enough eggs, a fertility specialist may also recommend one of these options:

  • In vitro fertilization (IVF) to stimulate the ovaries to make eggs.
  • Donor eggs from another woman to help you become pregnant. Egg donors may be from family members, friends, anonymous donors or known donors from an agency.
  • Donor embryos put into the uterus of a woman. A child born from a donated embryo will not carry the genes of the parents who choose a donor embryo, but the procedure allows for a woman to experience pregnancy.

Women also have the option of choosing a surrogate or gestational carrier to carry a baby through pregnancy.

It doesn’t all depend on the mother, either. Doctors often recommend men also wait 2-5 years after treatment has ended to have a child. By this time, sperm damaged through chemotherapy or radiation should be replaced. Before treatment begins, men can also bank their sperm and store it for future use.

The questions below may help you begin the discussion with your doctor:

  • Is this treatment likely to affect my ability to have a baby?
  • Can something be done to protect my fertility during treatment?
  • How long do I have to wait after treatment ends to try to get pregnant?
  • Will pregnancy increase the chances of cancer coming back?
  • If I can’t have a baby, what are my options for becoming a parent?
  • Is there a fertility specialist you recommend who has treated cancer survivors?
  • Where can I find additional information or resources for support?

No matter what option you choose, you are not in this fight alone. There are many cancer resources and pregnancy services that can help you determine what is best for you and your family.

Learn more about cancer services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

It’s National Infertility Awareness Week. Learn more and get involved.

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