Fertility Issues for Singles with Cancer
Lisa Schneider for SingleEdition.com
A diagnosis of cancer usually means just one thing to patients: what do I have to do to get well? And while it’s true that the focus on treatment is paramount, it’s also unfortunately true that most cancer treatments can compromise one’s fertility.
People in a relationship contemplating children in the near future may be more likely than singles to think of this and take action – and that can put singles at a disadvantage down the line.
Because no matter what your status now, it’s important to consider the future and protect your fertility so your choices are your own.
When queried for this article, Donna Session, MD, Associate Professor at Emory University School of Medicine and an infertility specialist, was thrilled that it was coming to light. “Lack of awareness of the issues of cancer and fertility has been the most difficult issue we have,” she said. “Unfortunately, most patients hear about their options too late: they’re already on chemo when we see them. If information gets out to people earlier we can make sure they start considering options as early as possible.”
Those options vary depending on the type of cancer, the treatments undergone, and, unfortunately, the patient’s budget – treatments such as freezing a woman’s eggs can cost $10,000 a pop, and are generally not covered by insurance.
For men, of course, it’s much easier. Sperm banking has been around for decades, is quick, easy, non-invasive, and inexpensive. Unfortunately, single men with cancer often aren’t thinking about their future ability to have children. But many men do develop a strong desire to have children, and because it’s so easy, men with cancer should definitely plan to protect their fertility before they undergo cancer treatments regardless of whether they now think they want to have children someday or not.
While protecting women’s fertility during cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation or surgery is often more complex, there are a number of options women should be aware of and ask about.
Freezing a woman’s eggs is an option if time and money are available. “It can take 10 days to stimulate the ovaries and collect the eggs,” says Dr. Session, “and sometimes there is pressure to start the therapy sooner.” If your oncologist is comfortable with the timeframe but the cost is prohibitive for you, patients can turn to Fertile Hope, an organization that helps defray the expense of fertility treatments for cancer patients.
Additional treatment options for women include drugs like Zoladex or Lupron, which can help minimize the risk of ovarian failure due to chemotherapy – experts theorize that the drugs shrink the ovaries and reduce blood flow to the area, so patients get less of the chemo drug to the ovaries. Dr. Session explains that overall (it varies by drug, age, etc.), the chance of ovarian failure from chemotherapy is about 50%, while on Zoladex or Lupron it goes down to 10%.
Time can also be an issue here – the drugs can also take up to 10 days to work – but unlike with egg freezing, there is a backup: An additional drug called Antagon can help them work immediately, and while it requires a daily injection, it’s non-invasive compared to egg collection and often covered by insurance.
And for patients undergoing radiation therapy anywhere near their ovaries, the ovaries can actually be transplanted out of the pelvis for the duration of the therapy and reinstated when the treatment has run its course. While it sounds radical, “The ovary actually transplants very well,” Dr. Session says.
The most important thing is to know the issue exists and that you have options. A simple conversation with your oncologist and a fertility specialist can help you get informed quickly and make a decision that could significantly improve your life down the road.
Kirsten∗, who was diagnosed with cancer when she was only 27 and single, was fortunate to get informed and have time to freeze her eggs. She admits, “It’s a lot to take in and another layer of things to schedule. It’s exhausting.” But she adds, “For an opportunity to have natural children in the future, it’s worth everything in the world.”
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