Breast cancer can strike without warning, regardless of gender, to turn your world upside down. Information should be the first weapon in your arsenal to combat the disease. Myriad questions come to mind, including ways this disease may affect your ability to grow your family.
With that in mind, let's look at the top frequently asked questions (FAQs) about breast cancer and fertility.
Does Breast Cancer and its Treatment Affect Fertility?
The answer is "Possibly." Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, with a significant incidence occurring during the reproductive years. A breast cancer diagnosis means you'll have complex medical decisions, some of which will undoubtedly involve fertility.
Temporary infertility may result from some breast cancer treatments and your chances of getting pregnant may decrease after your treatment ends. Other therapies, however, may induce irreversible menopause and permanent infertility. But all hope is not lost!
Many healthy babies are born to women who successfully undergo breast cancer treatment. If you want to get pregnant following treatment, talk to your reproductive specialist about your fertility options before treatment starts, ideally as soon as the initial diagnosis is made.
Does In-vitro Fertilization (IVF) Increase my Risk of Breast Cancer?
This has been a worldwide concern for many years for individuals and their partners considering in-vitro fertilization to treat their infertility. But is it accurate, scientifically based information? Not according to a 21-year study of over 25,000 women.
The Dutch study followed over 19,000 women who began IVF treatment between 1983 and 1995 and almost 6,000 women who started other fertility treatments during the same period. The results showed that the breast cancer risk in the IVF-treated women was no higher than in women who had other fertility treatments and was about the same as an average woman's risk.
Does Treating Breast Cancer with Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) Affect Fertility?
Breast cancer and other cancers are often treated with hormone replacement therapies. Some of these hormone drugs may not interfere with your ability to get pregnant, but they can negatively affect the baby. Other hormone therapies may suppress or block your normal hormone production, causing infertility by putting you into early menopause. This infertility may be temporary or permanent, depending on how long you're on the HRT and the type of hormones used.
If HRT is being considered as a method of treatment for your breast cancer, be sure to talk to your cancer treatment team about the potential effects of HRT on your fertility.
Do Radiation Treatments for Breast Cancer Affect Fertility?
Breast cancer can be treated with radiation or radioactive substances. Although there is a potential for fertility problems while undergoing radiation therapy, the chances of fertility problems developing from the treatment aren't as high as with other forms of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy.
With radiation therapy, the radiation beams are targeted to the affected area only. By targeting only the breasts, the beams are not directed at the reproductive organs. In the rare case where infertility results from radiation therapy, the condition is usually temporary. If you're considering this form of therapy, discuss it in detail with your reproductive specialists before beginning the treatment.
What are my Options for Preserving my Fertility?
The first step is to talk to your primary healthcare provider after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis. During this conversation, you can get all the basic information on what's ahead for you. This is also a good time to ask about engaging the services of a reproductive specialist.
As your cancer care team comes together, they should discuss with you the options and specific treatments available to you and appropriate for your diagnosis. This will be a good time to ask questions about success rates, financial concerns, the options for preserving your fertility, and which are available to you.
A few examples of fertility-preserving options are:
• Egg freezing. This procedure removes eggs from the ovary and freezes them. They can later be thawed, fertilized in the lab to form embryos, and then placed in your uterus to begin a pregnancy. Also called egg or oocyte cryopreservation.
• Ovarian shielding. This procedure places a protective cover on the outside of the body, over the ovaries and structures of the reproductive system to shield them from scatter radiation. Also known as gonadal shielding.
• Ovarian transposition. This is a surgical procedure in which the ovaries are moved away from the area scheduled to receive radiation treatments. Also known as oophoropexy.
Is it Safe to Have a Baby After Breast Cancer Treatment?
A report published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in October 2021 provided reassuring evidence that breast cancer survivors can safely conceive a child and carry a pregnancy after breast cancer treatment. When considering the care plan for a patient's survival after treatment, the future family-building desires of the individual should be considered a crucial component.
Equip Yourself with the Right Information
Countless hours have gone into studying breast cancer and its impact on fertility and childbearing, but the bottom line remains unchanged: There is no rock-solid evidence against breast cancer survivors becoming pregnant. Currently, available data does not support the notion that pregnancy after breast cancer treatment increases the patient's chance of cancer recurrence.
Are you experiencing infertility because of breast cancer or another cause? Take the time to discuss your situation with the doctors specializing in reproductive medicine at the Institute for Human Reproduction.