Cancer Treatments and Female Infertility
Women who are undergoing cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy, are often concerned with the side effects of chemotherapy on their fertility. Cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy and hormonal therapy, can indeed all affect a woman’s ability to get pregnant.
In fact, hundreds of thousands of women become infertile after undergoing cancer treatment. But how exactly does cancer, and more specifically cancer treatment, affect a woman’s fertility? And can infertility be caused by cancer, whether permanent or temporary?
Types of Cancer Treatments
Different types of cancer treatments have different effects on a woman’s fertility and therefore not all lead to permanent infertility. Although it is difficult to discern the exact effect of a particular form of cancer treatment on a woman’s fertility, general guidelines do exist when trying to estimate the impact of treatment on a woman’s chances of getting pregnant:
- surgery: surgery is used to treat a variety of different cancers, especially female cancers. The effects of cancer surgery on a woman’s fertility depend on the specific type of surgery performed. For example, removing the uterus or both ovaries will permanently affect a woman’s ability to get pregnant. Similarly, an operation on the cervix, vagina or vulva can impact a woman’s changes of having a child.
- chemotherapy: the side effects of chemotherapy on fertility can be either permanent or temporary. The level of risk is dependent of the type of chemotherapy treatment a woman undergoes, as well as the dose of chemotherapy, the woman’s age and her overall health. Because a woman’s eggs mature each month, they are susceptible to damage caused by chemotherapy treatment. Chemotherapy also often results in female infertility because this form of cancer treatment can decrease the hormones produced by the ovaries, thereby affecting a woman’s fertility. However, the younger a woman is, the greater chance she has of recovery. In addition, a woman undergoing chemotherapy may be given birth control pills that will reduce her menstrual flow so as to minimize the risk of excess bleeding – a side effect of chemotherapy – which can also impact her fertility.
- radiation therapy: radiation therapy can lead to either temporary or permanent female infertility. This type of cancer treatment can have a particularly harmful effect on a woman’s fertility if performed on the ovaries or pelvic area. Total body radiation results in permanent infertility. The risk of infertility tied to radiation therapy depends on a woman’s age, the dose of radiation, and the type of radiation used.
- hormonal therapy: hormonal therapy can have a short-term effect on fertility while a woman is undergoing such treatment. In some cases, hormonal therapy can lead to early menopause.