Future Fertility for Cancer Survivors

If you're a man or a woman in your childbearing years before your cancer treatment began your oncologist likely talked to you about your future ability to have children. He or she may also have discussed ways to preserve your fertility, such as collecting and storing healthy eggs or semen before beginning cancer treatment for use after treatment.

Now that you have completed your cancer treatment, you may be ready to start or grow your family. Here are answers to some of the most common questions cancer survivors have as they consider expanding their families. Remember, your cancer care team is your best resource, because the most accurate answers to the following questions may depend on the type of cancer you had and the type of treatment you received.

Fertility after Cancer Treatment: Common Survivor Concerns

After cancer treatment, will I be able to have children?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question; the answer depends on the type of cancer you have and the treatments you received, and how your body responded.

Women

  • Chemotherapy - There are some types of chemotherapy that are more likely to cause egg damage and infertility than others. View the list on the American Cancer Society website.  
    Certain chemotherapy drugs can also weaken the heart making pregnancy dangerous or lead to early menopause (the absence of menstrual period which causes permanent infertility.)
  • Radiation therapy - When given internally (brachytherapy) or externally to the abdomen, pelvis, lower spine, ovaries, uterus, pituitary gland, the results can reduce a woman’s ability to become pregnant after treatment.
  • Surgery - Surgical removal of all or part of the uterus, cervix, one or both ovaries, or pelvic lymph nodes can hinder a woman’s ability to become pregnant or carry a pregnancy to term.

Men

  • Chemotherapy or Radiation - With either radiation therapy or chemotherapy, there is a risk of reduced sperm count. In some cases, sperm production returns to normal over time (usually 10 to 24 months after treatment.) In other cases, reduced sperm count caused by cancer treatment can be permanent.
  • Surgery - Surgical removal of the prostate, bladder, one or both testicles, or pelvic lymph nodes may cause infertility in men.

How long should I wait after cancer treatment before trying to conceive a child?

If your doctor advises that you are able to safely conceive (and carry a child if you’re a woman), there is no concrete rule about how long to wait. Usually, though, doctors advise that men wait 2 to 5 years after cancer treatment before trying to conceive a child naturally. That’s because cancer treatment can damage the DNA of sperm. While many survivors worry that cancer treatments increase the risk of conceiving a child with birth defects, studies have found no increase in the rates of birth defects in children conceived by a parent who has undergone cancer treatment.

For women, most oncologists recommend waiting at least 6 months from the date of their final chemotherapy to try to get pregnant (eggs damaged during cancer treatment should leave the body within 6 months). In some cases, though, oncologists recommend waiting up to 5 years after finishing cancer treatment to conceive a child depending on whether there are other hormone therapies or other treatments required after chemotherapy and radiation therapy is complete.

Is there a possibility of passing cancer along to a new baby?

There is no evidence that conceiving a child after cancer treatment increases that child’s risk of developing cancer. However, some cancers are hereditary. If you have had one of these cancers, there may be an increased risk that your child will develop that cancer during their lifetime. This does not mean your baby would develop cancer, it just means his or her risk would be higher than that of the general public. Cancers that may have a genetic link include breast, colorectal, ovarian, and prostate cancers. Genetic counseling and possibly genetic testing can help you understand the risks more clearly.

Regardless of Your Post-Cancer Fertility, You Can Still Become a Parent

Even if your cancer treatment has caused you to become infertile and you did not take steps or know you could take steps to preserve your fertility before treatment (such as freezing your eggs or sperm) that doesn’t mean you can’t become a parent. Thanks to donor eggs, donor sperm, surrogates who will carry your fertilized embryo to term, adoption, etc. you can still have the family you’ve dreamed of, even if your journey to parenthood is different than you had imagined.