In the reproductive medicine world, fertility preservation for cancer patients is one of the most important subjects people discuss. Young women diagnosed with cancer are suddenly faced with the possibility of a life-saving treatment that affects their ability to get pregnant. Although cancer treatment and full recovery should be the number one thing on the patient’s mind, finding an effective way of preserving their fertility is another thing many of these women worry about. Modern assisted reproductive technologies like IVF and egg freezing give patients an option to start the family of their dreams after treatment.
How do cancer treatments affect a woman’s fertility?
Surgery is usually required for reproductive cancers. These are cancers that affect the Fallopian tubes, womb, or any other part of the female reproductive system. When surgery is performed, scar tissue is left. This can compromise a woman’s ability to conceive. In some cases, part or all of a reproductive organ may need to be removed, which will also have a negative effect on a woman’s fertility.
Most of the drugs used in chemotherapy can damage the ovaries. The reason for this is that they target cancerous cells with medications known as cytotoxins and cytostatics, which destroy rapidly growing cells or inhibit their cell division. Although the primary target is cancer cells, other cells that are quickly dividing may be affected too. At birth, all the eggs a woman will ever have are already present in her ovaries. All of these eggs mature at different levels. Some will mature during each menstrual period, but only one is going to be released during normal ovulation. The remaining eggs die and are absorbed back into the body.
Chemotherapy can also damage a woman’s eggs, especially the ones that are about to be released during ovulation. Once damaged, these eggs can become chromosomally abnormal and may lead to birth defects or miscarriages if fertilized. When subjected to certain types of chemotherapy, some women can even enter premature menopause. A condition that is said to occur when a woman stops ovulating before she’s 40 years of age.
During this treatment, cancerous cells in the patient’s body are killed by directing high-energy rays at them. However, nearby healthy cells may also get destroyed. Whether radiation therapy will affect a woman’s future fertility or not depends on the proximity of the cancer to the reproductive tract. The closer they are, the higher the probability radiation will have a negative effect on fertility. Also, treating cancers that are close to the pituitary gland with radiation can affect a woman’s reproductive potential. Radiation may not have immediate effects on a patient’s fertility, but if, for instance, many of the eggs in the ovaries have been destroyed by radiation, the patient can enter menopause and permanently stop ovulating sooner than expected.
How can egg freezing help?
Egg freezing, also referred to as oocyte cryopreservation, gives cancer patients the opportunity to “pause the biological clock” on their fertility before starting treatment. Fertility medications are used to stimulate a woman’s ovaries in order to encourage multiple eggs to mature at the same time. Ovarian stimulation is timed and carefully monitored. Healthy and viable eggs are then retrieved during a short procedure carried out under mild sedation. The collected eggs then undergo flash-freezing and may be stored for ten years or more without losing their quality. The eggs are well-protected, allowing a woman to focus on her treatment and recovery. She can use them for IVF when she’s healthy again and ready to have children. In some cases where a patient’s womb is removed or destroyed during cancer treatment, the frozen eggs offer the chance to have a genetically related child with the assistance of a gestational carrier.
Embryo freezing is another alternative you may want to consider. One good thing about creating embryos is that you can have them genetically tested. This will give you a better idea of how many healthy embryos you’ll have and the likelihood of a successful pregnancy.
Is egg freezing safe for cancer patients?
The ovarian stimulation and egg freezing process pose no danger to cancer patients, but you should talk to your physician as soon as possible if you want to explore this option. The timeline of cancer treatment and egg freezing is one important thing you need to consider. You will need to consult with a fertility clinic and your oncology team to decide if it’s safe to defer cancer treatment for the time needed to complete an egg freezing cycle. In certain cases, especially when the cancer is proliferating, there may be little time between cancer diagnosis and beginning treatment.
Is egg freezing an affordable option?
Cost is one of the first things that comes to mind for many patients. However, having the ability to start a family after treatment outweighs the cost. It’s also a good idea to look at your health insurance policy since some will cover the cost of fertility preservation.
The good news is, there are a variety of options to secure funding for your fertility treatment. Some clinics now offer affordable financing and payment plans. Plus, there are programs and charities like, Team Maggie, The Heartbeat Program and The Livestrong Foundation, that offer free and subsidized medications and financial assistance to cancer patients looking to preserve their future fertility.
Being diagnosed with cancer and undergoing treatment takes both a physical and emotional toll. It can make people feeling upset, vulnerable, and withdrawn from their own bodies. With egg freezing, patients can safeguard their reproduction when they need it most.
If you have additional questions regarding fertility preservation options, you can always reach out to Reproductive Sciences Medical Center, a fertility clinic in San Diego. Visit us at www.fertile.com or call (858) 436-7186 to schedule a free consultation.