Battling cancer is among the most difficult fights a person may face throughout their life, and while the combination of courage, perseverance, and medicine allows many to defeat the evil, for some, the bumpy road continues long past remission. Certain cancer treatments can make it more difficult to get pregnant down the road, so if you’re a cancer survivor, there’s some important information you should know before you try and conceive.
How can cancer treatments affect fertility?
There are many factors that come into play when determining how much your past cancer treatment may affect your fertility, most notably the type of treatment, and how long removed you are from it.
Chemo is probably the most well-known form of cancer treatment, and can be highly effective at helping to fight the cancerous cells, although the side effects may be crippling. If you underwent chemo, you probably know how physically and mentally draining it can be, but its lasting effects may prove problematic as well. Women undergoing chemo often notice that their menstrual periods stop–a condition known as amenorrhea. Most survivors on the younger side (30 and below) will resume ovulating and having menstrual periods after chemotherapy, but for some, the “temporary menopause” becomes permanent, particularly if you’re closer to menopause age as it is. Even if your period does return, your body may be less able to produce healthy eggs than somebody your age who hasn’t battled cancer.
Certain chemotherapy drugs are more likely than others to result in permanently impaired fertility, specifically Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide). Other drugs like Platinol may put you at risk as well. However, there are also chemotherapy drugs that don’t have such an effect on fertility, including methotrexate and fluorouracil. There are also new chemotherapy drugs like Taxol and Taxotere whose fertility implications are as of yet unknown.
Chemotherapy affects everybody differently, so the effects on fertility can vary depending on the type of chemicals used and dosage. Chemotherapy can cause some eggs to be unhealthy, so most doctors recommend using some form of birth control while undergoing going, and waiting at least 6 months after treatment before trying to conceive, in order to avoid getting pregnant with a damaged egg.
Women who have battled cancers of the pelvic area or lower abdomen, like ovarian or cervical cancer, might have been treated using radiation therapy. Most women of reproductive age who are introduced to radiation therapy will be advised of the risk to their fertility going forward, and some may choose to have some ovarian tissue removed, and their eggs banked.
Radiation therapy can cause an early onset of menopause, complete with hot flashes, vaginal dryness, moodiness, and an absence of menstrual periods and ovulations. Radiation therapy can also affect the uterus, making it entirely more difficult for an egg to implant and develop properly, even if conception does occur.
Fertility can be impacted by cancer surgery depending on the location. For instance, if you had an ovary removed, your ovulations may occur less regularly. Fortunately, if the surgery does not affect any particular area of your reproductive system, there is unlikely to be any increased difficulty in conceiving if you did not use chemotherapy or radiation treatment in addition to the surgery.
What should I know before getting pregnant after cancer treatment?
If your periods return after cancer treatment, it’s still important that you wait long enough to make sure that you’re getting pregnant with a healthy egg. Waiting is especially important when it comes to chemotherapy and radiation, as the damaged eggs may develop abnormally, if one is able to be fertilized at all.
It’s also crucial to understand that getting pregnant can take some time, even for women who AREN’T coming off of cancer treatment. Because of this, the ability to stay calm, patient, and optimistic is of the utmost importance when trying to conceive after cancer–however, you’ll also want to be able to recognize when there is a problem, and assistance might be in order.
Meeting with your healthcare provider before trying to conceive after cancer treatment can also be extremely helpful, as they can help you come up with the best strategy possible to achieve your dreams of having a baby.
What do I do if I’m having trouble conceiving?
Seek help–there’s absolutely no shame in it, ESPECIALLY if you have battled cancer in the past. If you’ve been tracking your cycle and timing your intercourse without success, it may be time to seek the help of a fertility specialist. Fertility specialists are doctors who are trained to identify and treat issues in both men and women that may be contributing to infertility, and they have a wide range of tools at their disposal to help, including both medical and surgical options.
In-vitro fertilization (IVF) or some other form of assisted reproductive technology may also be an option if you and your partner are having difficulty, particularly if you had any eggs frozen before the treatment.
Even if it seems difficult, most women are able to conceive with the help of a fertility specialist, so don’t hesitate to seek one out if you are having trouble, particularly because you’ve battled cancer in the past.
The bottom line
Getting pregnant after cancer treatment isn’t always easy, but as a cancer survivor you’ve encountered difficulties before.
Depending on the type of cancer, and the type of treatment, a fertility specialist can help you identify and treat the cause of your infertility, and help you achieve your dreams of starting, or adding to, your family.