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New Hope for Starting a Family After Cancer

Michelle Matthews, Director of Fertility Preservation

More than 130,000 men and women in their reproductive years are diagnosed with cancer each year. With early detection and increasingly effective treatments, more patients are surviving cancer and want to start families. Exciting new advances have increased options for patients who want to preserve fertility prior to initiating cancer treatments that may otherwise leave them infertile.

To preserve fertility for men, sperm may be frozen prior to cancer treatment and stored for future use. Healthy pregnancies have been reported with sperm that has been stored for 20 years. For patients who do not store sperm prior to chemotherapy or radiation and subsequently have extremely low sperm counts, there are now techniques to obtain sperm directly from the testicle to use for achieving pregnancy through in vitro fertilization (IVF). IVF is a process where a woman’s egg is fertilized with sperm outside the body and then transferred back into the uterus.

This offers a man the opportunity to have a child using his own sperm if he did not store any prior to cancer treatment. While men continually produce new sperm, women are born with all of the eggs they will ever develop. Cancer treatments for a woman often permanently deplete her supply of eggs, resulting in early menopause. Although sperm are relatively easy to freeze prior to cancer treatment, freezing eggs is more difficult and was not effective until recently.

However, exciting advances in fertility preservation have expanded options for women. Over 900 pregnancies have been reported using a new and effective technique to freeze eggs called “vitrification”. Vitrification is a freezing technique that results in approximately 90 percent of eggs surviving the process. Pregnancies have also been established by freezing portions of the ovary prior to cancer treatment and then transplanting them back after completing chemotherapy or radiation.

Although this technique is still in development, it may allow patients to conceive naturally and holds significant promise for the future. A diagnosis of cancer can be overwhelming and not all patients elect to preserve sperm or eggs prior to initiating cancer treatment. Fortunately, options are available after cancer to help patients conceive naturally or with assistance. For many patients, simply understanding how cancer impacts fertility can empower them to make decisions that provide hope for their future.

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