How does cancer affect your fertility?

Published: 19 Sep 2017

Many cancer sufferers worry about the disease’s impact on their long-term health, and one of the most common concerns is how cancer treatment will impact their fertility. 

Choosing to start a family is a big decision for any couple, but if one or both people in the relationship have been affected by cancer, there’s even more to think about before trying to conceive. 

Unfortunately, there are direct links between infertility and certain types of cancer. For example, women that suffer from endometrial cancer may end up having a hysterectomy as part of their treatment plan. 

However, the good news for most people is that being diagnosed with cancer doesn’t automatically mean you won’t be able to have children. The road might be longer than other couples, but there is living proof that you can get there in the end! 

How cancer impacts female fertility 

Even if the type of cancer you develop doesn’t directly affect your reproductive organs, it can still impact your chances of conceiving. For women, cancer treatments like chemotherapy can block the production of certain hormones, which can lead to your periods stopping during the course of your treatment.

Most women find their periods come back once chemo has finished, but it can take up to a year for your menstrual cycle to return to normal following treatment. Unfortunately, for an unlucky few, chemotherapy can bring on early menopause, which may put an end to your hopes of conceiving naturally. 

How cancer impacts male fertility

It’s not just women whose fertility is affected by cancer treatment.  For men, chemotherapy can interfere with or stop the production of sperm. It can also interrupt the production of sex hormones like testosterone, which can impact both your sex drive and sexual function.

On average, it takes 10-24 months for men’s sperm production to return to normal after chemo, depending on the strength of treatment you received. Some men may find their sperm levels are permanently impacted, which could restrict your chances of natural conception. 

Planning to start a family after cancer treatment

If you are about to embark on cancer treatment and know you want to start a family in future, there are some important things to think about. 

Firstly, it is not advisable to get pregnant during cancer treatment, as many of the drugs and treatments used to cure you will be harmful to unborn babies. Also, on a practical level, many people find sexual activity is the furthest thing from their mind when fighting cancer, but there are still safe ways to practice sex during chemotherapy if you’re in the mood. 

Before your chemotherapy begins, you may want to consider some fertility measures to protect your future chances of conception, such as having eggs or sperm frozen. This gives medical experts more options should your fertility levels be affected by chemo, and you need to explore options such as In vitro fertilisation (IVF). 

When to start a family after you’ve had cancer

If you want to try to conceive after being given the all-clear from cancer, most doctors advise you wait at least six months after your chemotherapy has finished. This is to allow your body time to recover and let any residual drugs leave your system – sometimes doctors will tell you to wait longer, depending on the type of cancer you had and the treatment you received.

No matter how long you choose to wait after your cancer treatment it is always best to speak to your doctor before you start trying for children. In addition to advising you whether it’s safe to conceive, they may be able to offer further guidance to help increase your chances of getting pregnant naturally. 

And don’t worry if you don’t fall pregnant at the first try – it takes the average couple up to a year to conceive. Just remain patient and enjoy the practice!