It's not as easy for women to keep their fertility as it is for men. But there are ways to do it.
Possible ways to keep your fertility include:
- freezing embryos
- freezing eggs
- freezing ovarian tissue
If you choose to do so, these must be done before starting chemotherapy.
Unfortunately there can be problems with these methods and they are not suitable for everyone.
You have fertility drugs to stimulate your ovaries to produce eggs. Doctors can then collect (harvest) the eggs and use your partner’s sperm to fertilise them in a laboratory, creating embryos. They then freeze the embryos until you want to have a baby, when the embryo is returned to your womb to grow there. This is called in vitro fertilisation (IVF).
It’s quite a complicated process and it doesn’t always succeed. It is important to understand that the embryos are the joint property of you and your partner. Both of you will need to agree to use them later.
You may not have a partner at the moment. You can have just your eggs frozen until you’re ready to have a baby.
The process is very similar to IVF. You have drugs to stimulate your ovaries to make eggs. Doctors then collect and freeze them until you are ready for them to be fertilised.
Freezing ovarian tissue
Researchers are looking into removing ovarian tissue and freezing it before chemotherapy starts. The idea is to put the ovarian tissue back after treatment ends.
If the ovarian tissue then starts working normally, the ovaries may produce eggs and so you remain fertile.
At the moment there are only a few centres in the UK offering this service. Only a small number of babies have been born using this method. Talk to your doctor if you want to know more.
Ovarian stimulation and possible risks
Ovarian stimulation is not suitable for everyone. It takes at least 2 weeks to stimulate the ovaries. If you need to start chemotherapy straight away, there may not be time for you to have it.
The drugs given to stimulate the ovaries increase the levels of the hormone oestrogen. Oestrogen may encourage some cancers to grow, such as breast cancer.
Your specialist will talk through your options and explain any risks.
Getting pregnant after chemotherapy
Most doctors will advise women that it’s best to wait 2 years after chemotherapy treatment before becoming pregnant.
This is not because the pregnancy could affect the cancer. It’s because if your cancer was going to come back, it would be most likely to do so within two years. You would then need more treatment – and this would be very difficult if you were pregnant or had a young baby.
Other fertility options
There are other options you could consider if cancer has affected your fertility:
- using donor eggs
- using donated sperm so doctors can freeze embryos rather than eggs
- using donated embryos
- surrogacy (when another woman carries the baby for you)
These are difficult decisions and some options may not be straightforward. For example, some of them aren’t always funded by the NHS. There is also a shortage of donors.
You can discuss these options with your fertility expert. Many people find it helpful talking to a counsellor about all the issues involved.
You can also read more about these fertility treatments on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) website.
Cancer, Fertility and Me is a website for women with cancer who are having treatment that may affect their fertility and chances of becoming pregnant in the future.
It is written by fertility doctors, specialist nurses, psychologists and other professionals.
It aims to help women think about the treatments which may help to preserve their fertility. It also aims to help women prepare to talk with their healthcare professionals, partner, family and friends about fertility preservation before cancer treatment starts.