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When fertility is at stake
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If you’re about to undergo cancer treatment, you may worry about how it will affect your fertility. Be sure to voice your fears to your doctor. He or she will help you understand the long- and short-term effects radiation, chemotherapy and surgery can have on your chances of having a baby. Many effects of cancer treatment are temporary, and fertility-preserving options are available.

Radiation

How a patient’s fertility is affected depends on the strength and location of radiation treatment. When a woman’s pelvic area receives radiation, she may stop menstruating either temporarily or permanently. Because radiation may damage fetal cells, patients should avoid becoming pregnant during therapy. In men, radiation near the testes may reduce both the number of sperm and their effectiveness.

If you plan on having children after your cancer treatment ends, tell your doctor before you undergo treatment. The dosage can be adjusted to preserve future fertility. Men also have the option of banking sperm for later use.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy also may affect a patient’s fertility, depending on the drugs used, the person’s age and his or her general health. In men, cancer-fighting drugs may lower the number of sperm cells or reduce their mobility. The changes may be temporary or permanent and can lead to sterility. In women, chemotherapy can damage the ovaries and reduce the amount of hormones they produce, causing either temporary or permanent infertility.

It is important for patients concerned about fertility to discuss their options with their doctors. Women undergoing chemotherapy should avoid getting pregnant, and men undergoing the treatment should avoid impregnating their partners. The drugs can cause chromosomal changes and birth defects.

Surgery

In cases involving the surgical removal of reproductive organs, such as the testes, cervix, ovaries or uterus, fertility will most likely be lost. Men having just one of the testes removed may not necessarily become infertile, but they should ask their doctors about the surgery’s effect on their reproductive ability. A recent study indicates that younger women with ovarian cancer may be able to have conservative, fertility-sparing surgery provided the disease has been caught in an early stage.