When you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, especially at a young age, starting or adding to your family may be the last thing on your mind. Your top priority will be getting the best cancer treatment as quickly as possible, not freezing your eggs. But if you don’t take some time to learn about your options for becoming a parent once cancer treatment is behind you, you may regret it later. That’s because common cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation can leave people temporarily or permanently unable to have biological children.
And that’s where oncofertility comes in. “Oncofertility is a new medical field devoted to helping cancer patients and survivors protect their fertility,” says Hannah Spencer Fitzhugh, the leader of UVA Cancer Center’s Oncofertility Task Force, a new, multidisciplinary effort to improve patient care. “We’ve learned that fertility is a top concern of survivorship.”
Keep Your Options Open
The American Society of Clinical Oncologists (ASCO) urges patients with a new cancer diagnosis to consider their fertility options, even if they’re not sure they want to have children. They suggest asking your oncologist for a referral to a reproductive specialist. This is a doctor who specializes in fertility problems and can help explain options for preserving fertility.
“People may be too overwhelmed by news of their diagnosis to think to ask the oncologist immediately about their fertility preservation options. That’s OK because the reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist will be able to offer more specific information,” Fitzhugh says. “At UVA Cancer Center, we’ve made sure that patients can get into see a reproductive endocrinologist within 48 hours of making the request.”
Start the Conversation
If you just received a cancer diagnosis, you’ll undoubtedly have many questions. Here are some suggested questions from Save My Fertility, a nonprofit that has created an online toolkit for cancer patients, to help you start the conversation with your oncologist and reproductive specialist.
- How quickly do you need to start cancer treatment?
- Will your cancer or its treatment affect your future fertility?
- What are your options to preserve your fertility?
- Do any of these options make your cancer treatment less effective or raise the chance of a recurrence?
- You’re not in a relationship but still want a child, so what are your options?
- If your prognosis is poor, may you still bank embryos or eggs?
Patients often wonder about the financial aspects of preserving their fertility. The cost of fertility preservation varies but may be expensive, says Save My Fertility. NPR reports that it’s usually around $10,000, with additional annual and procedural costs. Insurance companies may or may not cover the cost of fertility treatments, depending on the individual policy. Financial help is available from some organizations, including LIVESTRONG. Talk to your hospital’s financial advisor about these specific concerns.
Freezing Your Eggs
There are options to help preserve your fertility. According to the ASCO, there are three recommended options for women. These include:
- Freezing fertilized eggs, which is called embryo cryopreservation
- Freezing unfertilized eggs, known as oocyte cryopreservation
- Requesting that any necessary surgery or radiation therapy be planned to minimize fertility risks if possible.
Research to preserve women’s fertility is occurring in two major areas: freezing tissue from the ovaries, called ovarian tissue cryopreservation, and using hormones to stop the ovaries from working during treatment, known as ovarian suppression. For now, these are considered experimental.
Whichever option you choose, your chances of becoming a parent after cancer treatment have never been higher than they are today. And once you take steps to protect your fertility, you can focus all your attention on your treatment.
If you have a new cancer diagnosis, contact the UVA Cancer Center Oncofertility Task Force for personalized guidance.Learn More