A cancer diagnosis, and its subsequent treatment, may affect a woman’s future ability to conceive or maintain a healthy pregnancy.
Whether a family is on the horizon, growing a family is in the works, or family isn’t even a consideration, when a cancer diagnosis strikes each woman’s future fertility and family plans may be impacted and/or compromised by their individual treatment path.
Q. How does a breast or ovarian cancer diagnosis affect my fertility?
A. A breast or ovarian cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment may cause fertility problems and and/or lead to infertility if not managed appropriately prior to the commencement of treatment. Infertility itself can range from having difficulty conceiving to the inability to have a child and can last after treatment concludes for a short period, for many years or even permanently.
Certain cancer treatments, including radiotherapy and chemotherapy, may damage a woman’s ovaries and decrease the number of eggs available. Hormone production between the brain and ovaries is often the first element negatively impacted by specific treatments used to target breast and ovarian cancers.
Q. Could my age impact my fertility after a cancer diagnosis?
A. A woman is born with all the eggs she will have in her lifetime. With age, the number of eggs she has reduces. Female fertility begins to decline from about the age of 30 to 35, when conceiving naturally can become difficult and the chances of carrying a healthy baby to full term is reduced.
The impact of cancer treatments can therefore vary by age. Before puberty, the ovaries are generally more protected from cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, although the effect of these on fertility can range from mild to severe depending on the dose and specific treatment type.
Following puberty, the ovaries become more sensitive to the effects of cancer treatments and, as such, the potential for fertility issues and risks increase as we age. Even if reproductive function does return following treatment, some women may experience earlier menopause as a result.
Q. Should I have a child following a cancer diagnosis and treatment?
A. The choice to have a child is entirely up to you. Understandably, a cancer diagnosis may influence how you think and feel about having a child, so it is worth exploring this with a fertility clinic counsellor to determine the circumstances surrounding your own unique situation.
Q. How long should I wait to conceive following the end of my cancer treatment?
A. There are many factors at play when it comes to family planning following cancer treatment, and the decision and options to commence trying for a family will be dependent upon the type of cancer and treatment you’ve had.
While some specialists may advise waiting up to two years following treatment, to allow your body to heal and recover, the best option is to speak directly to your health care team to determine the best options based on your personal situation.
Some women will require fertility treatment to support their family planning efforts, and the need to take extra hormones or stimulate hormones may in turn influence the timeline of family planning. It is advised that you discuss in detail the potential risks of particular fertility treatments with your fertility and cancer specialists to ensure that your health is managed in line with your personal situation.
For women who wish to jump straight into creating a family following cancer treatment, studies so far are reassuring that pregnancy does not increase the risk of cancer returning or decrease your risk of survival. However, every woman’s personalised treatment plan will vary, so speaking with your medical team about what is possible for you is the most important first step you can take in planning for your future family.
Q. Could my cancer come back as a direct result of me having children?
A. Research suggests that pregnancy does not increase chances of cancer returning, however these studies are usually focused wholly on breast cancer. As a result, it is best to speak with your specialist to ensure your personal situation is taken into consideration.
Q. If I’ve had cancer, will my children get cancer?
A. Whether one or both parents have had cancer, studies indicate that a child is at no more of an increased risk of getting it than the general population. However, a small percentage of cancers (up to 10 percent for breast and 20 percent for ovarian) are due to an inherited gene fault from either mother or father, also known as familial cancer. This genetic mutation can increase an individual’s risk of cancer, but even then, that does not mean that the child will inherit the gene and subsequently develop cancer.
Should you wish to explore PGD options to reduce your future family risk of inheriting a genetic mutation refer to our blog on Fertility Options Following Cancer Diagnosis but Before Treatment.
A genetic counsellor can answer all your questions relating to the most up-to-date information on genetic risks for family members. To ask a genetic counsellor via the Pink Hope Ask Our Genetic Counsellor Tool, click here.
Q. What if I am diagnosed with cancer whilst I am pregnant?
A. A cancer diagnosis during a pregnancy is incredibly rare – estimated to be only one in every 1000 pregnant women. While it is still possible to receive cancer treatment during pregnancy, it is best to discuss the risks and benefits of doing so with your oncologist before the treatment begins. In some cases, and depending on your cancer type, treatment can be delayed until after birth. If chemotherapy is required, it can be used after the first trimester (once the baby is of 12 weeks’ gestation).
Q. Can I breastfeed following a cancer diagnosis?
A. If you are undergoing chemotherapy treatment following the birth of your child, you will be advised not to breastfeed during this time as the drugs can be passed through to the baby via the breastmilk.
During radiotherapy, breastfeeding is deemed safe. If you have had a breast cancer diagnosis and are receiving radiotherapy, it is safe to breastfeed your baby from the breast that is not receiving treatment.
It is recommended that women taking tamoxifen do not breastfeed, however you can discuss this in further detail with your oncologist
For further support on the matter of breastfeeding, please call the Australian Breastfeeding Association on 1800 686 268.
This content is brought to you in partnership with Conceive Please.