Fertility preservation at a glance
- Fertility preservation most often involves cryopreserving (freezing) reproductive tissues such as eggs, sperm or embryos for future use.
- Fertility preservation is used often in cancer patients as well as single women desiring to save their eggs at a younger age in case they run into fertility issues in the future.
- Fertility preservation can save a cancer patient’s reproductive tissues from harmful treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgical removal of reproductive organs.
- Prior to any cancer treatments, especially those involving chemotherapy or radiation, patients wishing to have biological children in the future should have a fertility preservation consultation.
What is fertility preservation?
Fertility preservation is most commonly the freezing and storing (cryopreservation) of reproductive tissue, such as eggs, sperm and embryos, prior to patients undergoing cancer treatment, in order to retain their ability to have biological children. It is also used to save eggs of a young woman who wishes to delay motherhood for reasons of career or not yet finding the right life partner. In such cases the woman wants to preserve her eggs while still young, since fertility at older ages in women can be a challenge. The single biggest factor affecting fertility in women is the negative impact of advancing age on egg quantity and quality.
Certain cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery to remove reproductive organs, can have negative effects on a person’s reproductive tissues and could render that person infertile after treatment. The impact of cancer treatment on fertility depends on factors including the type of cancer, the treatment prescribed and the age of the patient at the time of cancer treatment.
Aside from cryopreservation, other types of fertility preservation include:
- Gonadal shielding. If radiation treatment is applied to an area far from the pelvis, special shields can be placed over the pelvic region to protect the reproductive organs from the radiation.
- Ovarian transposition. If a woman is to undergo radiation in the pelvic region, her ovaries can be surgically repositioned to be as far away from the area receiving radiation as possible.
- Experimental fertility preservation. These methods used before cancer treatment include ovarian tissue cryopreservation and ovarian suppression, which suppresses production of the hormone estrogen. In ovarian tissue cryopreservation, after treatment the frozen tissue is re-implanted near the fallopian tube, where it will hopefully produce more eggs.
Who should consider fertility preservation?
On average 220,000 children, teenagers and adults ages 0-39 are diagnosed with cancer each year. While the number one goal of cancer treatments is to save the patient’s life, many cancer treatments can compromise reproductive health. Prior to any cancer treatment, patients wishing to have the option to have biological children in the future should have a fertility preservation consultation with a reproductive endocrinologist.
For patients who have undergone cancer treatments that rendered them infertile, treatments such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) or third party reproduction can help them to complete their dream of having children.
Also, since advancing age has a profound impact on female fertility, if a woman is single and does not envision getting married soon, she may want to consider freezing her eggs in her early- to mid-thirties. The frozen eggs can be used in the future to increase the chances of having her own biologic children.
Risks of undergoing fertility preservation
Risks for fertility preservation are very low. As most fertility preservation involves surgery, the risks are similar to any surgery, including:
- Blood loss
- Reactions to anesthesia
- Blood clotting.