Cancer Treatment and Future Pregnancy

Radiation treatment for cancer during childhood can decrease fertility

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

(RxWiki News) As if having cancer as a child were not bad enough, there's evidence that the radiation treatment to fight the cancer may cause infertility later in life.

Even low doses of radiation treatment to the head can impact a woman's fertility, according to a new study. While doctors already knew that high doses of radiation can interfere with parts of a woman's brain that control the ovaries, this new study shows that more modest levels of radiation also have a negative effect.

dailyRx Insight: Young women treated with radiation may have lower pregnancy rates.

Compared to women who received no radiation treatment for their childhood cancers, those who received 22 units of radiation (a moderately low dose) were much less likely to become pregnant.

For their study, Dr. Daniel Green, from St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis, and colleagues looked at pregnancy rates among women who received radiation treatment as children for cancers such as leukemia and brain tumors, as well as bone, muscle, and lymph node cancers. The researchers used the pregnancy rates of the cancer survivor's sisters as a comparison.

The researchers found only a small difference in pregnancy rates between cancer survivors and their sisters (3 out of 10 vs. 5 out of 10). However, they did find that being treated with radiation lead to 33 percent fewer pregnancies compared to having no radiation treatment.

Cancer is diagnosed in over 12 million people each year, and kills over 7 million. It is the largest cause of death in the developing world, and one out of ever three people will be diagnosed with an invasive cancer at some point in their lifetime. Cancer is a group of diseases classified by abnormal and uncontrolled cellular growth in a particular organ or tissue type in the body. When the growth invades other tissues, causes damage to them, or spreads to different parts of the body it is considered malignant. Cancer is caused by a multitude of factors including genetics and infections, but a majority of cancers can be attributed to environmental causes, such as smoking, and being exposed to carcinogens or radiation. Symptoms of cancer are variable. In some cases, the cancer will produce symptoms that affect the organ it is located in, such as coughing and shortness of breath from a lung cancer, constipation and bloody stools from colon cancer, or headaches and cognitive problems from a brain cancer. Other cancers such as leukemia and blood cancers may produce flu-like symptoms and sudden infections. Some cancers may be discovered by a lump, or physical evidence, such as in breast cancer. Treatment for cancer is usually one of or a combination of surgery to remove it, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Newer treatments such as hormonal drugs and targeted drugs are making cancer treatment even more specific to the patient and the disease. Diagnosis is based off of physical examination and several imaging techniques such as MRI, PET scan, and laparoscopy. Definitive diagnosis is achieved when a piece of cancerous tissue is examined by a pathologist.

The study is published in the journal Fertility and Sterility.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
March 11, 2011
Last Updated:
March 14, 2011