Women, Cancer and Fertility

Fertility not typically being protected during cancer treatment

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Young women undergoing cancer treatment are often more concerned with saving their lives than saving their ability to have children. But there are options for preserving fertility; they just need to be discussed.

Relatively few young women diagnosed with cancer are taking steps to protect their fertility from the side effects of various cancer therapies, according to new research.

These findings open the door for increasing awareness and discussions about how women can preserve their ability to have children after beating cancer.

Talk to your oncologist about how to preserve your fertility.

Every year, more than 120,000 women under the age of 50 in the United States learn they have cancer. And some of the treatments they receive, including chemotherapy and radiation, may take away their ability to have children or cause premature menopause.

A number of techniques are available to help a woman's chances of conceiving after cancer treatment, including egg or embryo freezing. Yet, few women take advantage of these widely available techniques.

"Sometimes when a woman hears she has cancer, she might not think of anything else other than whether I will die or when can I start my treatment," Stephanie V. Blank, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the New York University Langone Medical Center, told dailyRx in an interview.

"In most cases, there will be life after treatment and it's important for people to think about that," Dr. Blank said.

To learn about the number of women who protect their fertility, Mitchell Rosen, M.D., of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and colleagues surveyed 1,041 women aged 18-40 who were diagnosed with cancer.

Participants were randomly sampled from the California Cancer Registry and survey between 1993 and 2007. The women had five different cancers, including  leukemia, Hodgkin's disease, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, breast cancer, and gastrointestinal cancer.

A total of 918 of the women in the study underwent treatments that potentially affect fertility. These treatments include radiation to the pelvis, chemotherapy, pelvic surgery or bone marrow transplant.

Researchers leaned that 61 percent of the women had been counseled about the fertility risks of their cancer treatments. Yet, only four percent of the women took steps to preserve their ability to conceive.

The numbers of women taking protective measures increased from one percent in 1993 to a range of six to 10 percent from 2005-2007. 

Researchers found that some groups of women were more likely to take action. These women were heterosexual, childless, younger, Caucasian and college graduates.

"Although more women are getting counseled regarding reproductive health risks, many women are still not receiving adequate information about their options at the time of cancer diagnosis," said study leader, Dr. Rosen. 

He says that education and policy interventions could be explored to narrow this health disparity. 

Dr. Blank urges women to have a specialist in onco-fertility on their cancer treatment team. "There are treatments that can take away the ability to have kids that can sometimes be delayed, such as some forms of chemotherapy, radiation and some surgeries with gynecological cancers.

"There's a lot you can do to preserve fertility that may not be on top of your list," Dr. Blank concluded.

This study was published March 26, 2012 online in Cancer, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society.

No funding information or financial disclosures were publicly available.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 12, 2012
Last Updated:
July 24, 2012