Memorial Sloan Kettering experts discuss the impact that cancer and its treatment can have on female fertility, and options for building a family after treatment ends.
Women who confront a cancer diagnosis before beginning or completing their families may have many questions about how cancer treatment will affect their ability to have children in the future. The good news is that investigators at Memorial Sloan Kettering are devoting an increasing amount of attention to this topic, and there are steps that patients may be able to take to preserve fertility, enabling them to parent a child in the future.
Memorial Sloan Kettering and CancerConnect, an online cancer community, recently partnered to air a live web chat that offered expert information about how some cancer therapies can affect a woman’s reproductive system, what options exist to help preserve fertility before treatment begins, and what alternatives can be considered for building a family after treatment ends.
Understanding How Treatment Affects Fertility
Many women diagnosed with cancer during their childbearing years will be able to have children naturally after treatment, but some are at risk for losing their ability to conceive a child or carry a pregnancy.
For example, surgical procedures may require the removal of reproductive organs or alter their structure and function. Chemotherapy can destroy eggs, as can radiation therapy delivered to the pelvic area. Surgery or radiation therapy involving the brain may disrupt hormone function, interfering with egg maturation during a woman’s menstrual cycle.
“Cancer and cancer treatments vary in their likelihood of causing infertility, depending on individual factors such as the type of disease, patient’s age, treatment type and dosages, and fertility before treatment,” says clinical nurse specialist Joanne Frankel Kelvin, who leads Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Cancer and Fertility Program and participated in the webinar.
Exploring Your Options before Treatment Begins
Although clinicians cannot always prevent fertility problems in patients who want to have children after cancer treatment, they can provide information about the risk of infertility and the availability of options to preserve fertility, such as egg and embryo freezing. In addition, they can refer interested patients to reproductive specialists to learn more.
“Clinicians have to become more diligent about informing patients of these options, but patients must become educated and know what questions to ask,” says Ms. Kelvin. She recommends that newly diagnosed patients who want to have children in the future ask their oncologist if they are at risk for infertility from treatment and request a referral to a reproductive endocrinologist if this has not been offered. “Decisions about fertility preservation must be made before treatment begins, so this discussion should happen as early as possible while treatment is being planned.”
Fertility-Sparing Surgery for Early-Stage Gynecologic Cancer
Fertility-preserving techniques are available for some women who are newly diagnosed with early-stage gynecologic cancers.
For example, since 2001, Memorial Sloan Kettering has offered a surgical procedure called radical trachelectomy for women of childbearing age with early-stage cervical cancer. Due to refinements made by Memorial Sloan Kettering surgeons, radical trachelectomy can be an effective way to remove early-stage cervical cancer without compromising the patient’s outcome or her ability to become pregnant and carry a child after treatment.
During the webinar, Nadeem R. Abu-Rustum, who is Director of Minimally Invasive Surgery for the Gynecology Service and specializes in this technique, explained that in many cases, radical trachelectomy can be done instead of a hysterectomy — the standard treatment, which involves the removal of a woman’s uterus and renders her unable to carry a pregnancy.
Memorial Sloan Kettering surgeons have performed 130 radical trachelectomies to date, making it the largest program of its kind in the United States. The majority of women attempting conception after the procedure are successful, and most babies are delivered full term via cesarean section.
Preserving Ovarian Function after Colorectal Cancer
Colorectal surgeon Larissa K. F. Temple presented information on how chemotherapy and radiation treatment can impact fertility in women with colon or rectal cancer, as well as standard and investigational treatment options available to preserve fertility among newly diagnosed women.
She highlighted one surgical procedure, called ovarian transposition, which can help protect a woman’s ovaries from being damaged during radiation therapy for rectal cancer by permanently moving them outside the field of treatment.
“This minimally invasive procedure reduces the exposure of the ovaries to radiation with the goal of keeping the ovaries working properly and increasing the chances that a woman can conceive a child after cancer treatment, will not go into early menopause, or both,” explains Dr. Temple.
Even when the ovaries are moved, they may still be exposed to some radiation. Adding chemotherapy to a patient’s treatment plan may increase the likelihood of eggs being destroyed.
“In order to improve the chances of having a biological child, patients may also want to consider egg or embryo freezing before treatment,” suggests Dr. Temple.
Family Building Options after Cancer Treatment
Not all women will be able — or want — to freeze eggs or embryos before beginning cancer treatment. However, if a woman is no longer fertile after treatment, there are still ways to become a parent.
“Discussion of other routes to parenthood is an important topic for many cancer survivors,” says Ms. Kelvin. These options include using donor eggs, surrogacy, and adoption.
During her presentation, Ms. Kelvin also touched on the complex legal issues and considerable financial implications that these choices may have. “Our goal is for you to feel you have the information you need to make the best decision you can for yourself, and regardless of the outcome, we want to be sure you have no regrets,” she said.