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Protecting Fertility During Breast Cancer Treatment

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Many people with breast cancer get chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Both of these treatments can affect your fertility.

If you’d like to have children, be sure to tell your doctor before you begin breast cancer treatment. It’s an important conversation to have. Ask questions about your specific treatment plan.

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How Does Treatment Affect Fertility?

Chemotherapy uses medicine to kill cancer cells. These medicines also hurt some healthy cells, including those that make eggs. There’s no way to protect your ovaries completely during chemotherapy. The type of drugs used, the length of treatment, and a person's age all affect the impact on fertility. For some, the effect of chemotherapy is temporary.

Radiation therapy treats the cancer with radiation or radioactive substances. The potential for fertility problems from radiation aren’t as high as with chemotherapy. The radiation beams only target the affected area, away from reproductive organs. But the beams may pass through healthy tissues and organs and cause infertility. Sometimes the infertility is temporary.

Breast cancer treatment can lower your sex drive and can lessen the chances of fertility. Hormone changes, fatigue, nausea, and self-image can also lower your sexual desire.

Can Fertility Be Preserved After Treatment?

There are things you can do to increase your chance of having children later. These include:

Cryopreservation, the process of freezing and storing fertilized eggs (called embryos) for later use. Your embryos can be implanted in your womb after you recover from treatment or in a surrogate (a woman who carries the baby for you). Unfertilized eggs are more delicate and can be easily damaged during the freezing process, so preserving them is less effective.

Taking less toxic chemotherapy drugs. Some drugs may cause less damage to your reproductive organs, but they may also be less effective at treating your breast cancer. Your oncologist can determine if a less toxic drug may work for you.

Hormonal suppression is a method that spares the reproductive system. This approach uses hormones to temporarily shut down your body's production of eggs. This process seems to protect the cells that develop into eggs from damage during breast cancer treatment.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on July 25, 2015
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