Health Check A-Z
Cancer and fertility
Cancer, and some cancer treatments, can affect your reproductive health. It could be worth considering ways of preserving your fertility before you start your treatment.
When you're told you have cancer, your ability to have children (your fertility) may be the furthest thing from your mind. Whether you already have children or haven't yet thought about becoming a parent, it is worth thinking about your fertility before starting some forms of cancer treatment.
Read the facts about fertility and what it means to be fertile.
Cancer treatments that can affect your fertility include surgery on your reproductive organs (including ovaries or testicles), chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Hormone therapies and other treatments may also have an impact on fertility, but less is known about the effects of these treatments.
It can be difficult to know what the effects of the cancer treatment will be until much later. Many people who receive cancer treatments, especially those treated for cancer as children, remain fertile and go on to have a family of their own in later life.
Some find that their fertility is affected for a short time and then recovers when treatment has finished, but others find that their fertility is affected for longer. It often depends upon your individual circumstances, such as your age, the treatment you receive, where in your body the cancer is and whether you are male or female.
Women and fertility
If you're a woman of child bearing age, cancer treatments can affect your fertility by:
- stopping you from producing certain hormones
- stopping your ovaries from working, and therefore causing an early menopause
- damaging the lining of your womb
- involving surgery to remove your womb
Speak to your doctor or nurses about your options for preserving your fertility before you start cancer treatment. If they feel there is enough time before starting treatment, you could be referred to a fertility clinic. They will be able to give you information about the options available to you, and talk to you about the likelihood of them working.
- storing embryos (fertilised eggs)
- freezing unfertilised eggs and storing them
- removal and storage of ovarian tissue
The storage of unfertilised eggs and ovarian tissue, and their use in fertility treatments, are still new procedures, and are not yet very likely to lead to a successful pregnancy. Your cancer doctor will be able to talk to you in detail about them if you would like to know more.
It is worth bearing in mind that fertility treatments can:
- be time consuming
- take up your emotional and physical energy
- be expensive
Whether or not you have fertility treatments is a very personal decision. If you have a partner, you may wish to go to the clinic together so that you can both discuss your concerns with the doctor. Speak to your doctor about whether you are entitled to any fertility treatments on the NHS. Some people do have to pay for fertility treatments. The private clinics vary in cost, so you’ll need to contact them directly to find out how much they charge. Your doctor will be able to advise you about how to get in touch with clinics in your area.
For information about getting more advice when you have finished your treatment, see After your cancer treatment.
Pregnancy and cancer treatment
It’s not advisable to get pregnant during your cancer treatment, as some treatments could cause harm to the baby. It is possible to get pregnant while you’re having cancer treatment, even if your periods have stopped, so you’ll need to consider using contraception or abstaining from having sex.
Read more about finding the most suitable method of contraception for you.
If you’re taking the contraceptive pill, speak to your doctor about whether it’s safe to keep taking it with the treatment you’re having.
After your treatment, speak to your doctor or nurse about how long you need to wait before it will be safe to try to get pregnant. The length of time can vary according to factors such as the type of treatment you received.
If you are already pregnant when you are diagnosed with cancer, let your doctor know about the pregnancy straight away, so that you can discuss the options before you have treatment.
If you get pregnant during your treatment, speak to your doctor as soon as possible. They can discuss the most appropriate options with you. The options will depend upon many factors, including your cancer diagnosis and type of treatment.
Men and fertility
Cancer treatments can affect your fertility by:
- Stopping, or interfering with, the production of sperm.
- Affecting the production of testosterone, or other hormones involved with sexual function.
- Damaging nerves and blood vessels in your pelvic area (which can make it difficult to get an erection or ejaculate).
It may be possible to store some of your sperm before you start treatment. This is called sperm banking. You may have to provide several sperm samples over several days or weeks. These will then be frozen and stored, to be used in the future as part of fertility treatment.
Under some circumstances, your doctor may not want to delay starting your cancer treatment. You can discuss any concerns you have with your doctor.
Sperm banking is available on the NHS, but under some circumstances may need to be performed privately.
Contraception and cancer treatment
It is not advisable to get a woman pregnant when you’re having your treatment because the treatment could affect the DNA and genetic material in your sperm and cause harm to the baby. To protect against pregnancy during your treatment, you need to use contraception or abstain from having sex.
It may be appropriate to use a form of barrier contraception (such as a condom) to protect your partner as some chemotherapy drugs may be found in your semen (cum). This applies whether your partner is male or female.
After your cancer treatment – men and women
When you have finished receiving your cancer treatment, you may have questions regarding your fertility and having a family in the future. Many people in this situation wonder about issues such as whether they are fertile or not, whether it is safe to try for a baby, whether the treatment can harm children they have in the future and what will happen if they have a child and the cancer comes back.
It is natural to have a lot of questions. The best person to answer them is your doctor or specialist nurse. The answers will largely depend upon your individual diagnosis, the type of cancer treatment you received and how it has affected your body.
Some people decide to have a fertility test to help find out whether or not they are fertile. Others prefer to wait, or not to take the test at all.
Before having your fertility tested, you might like to consider a few points:
- Think about whether you would prefer to know now or wait until later.
- Consider how you might deal with the results of the test. It might be a good idea to talk to a family member, or your partner if you have one, about your feelings before and after receiving the results.
- A fertility test may not always be able to show accurately whether you are fertile or not. You may find that your first test shows that you are not currently fertile but that in a further test your fertility has returned. Your doctor will be able to discuss the likelihood of this with you.
- The results of your test will not tell you whether your partner is able to have children or not.
Some cancer treatments can bring on an early menopause. If you have your fertility tested after your treatment and you’re still fertile, but are advised that your menopause could come on earlier in life than it would have done without the treatment, you may want to think about trying to get pregnant earlier than you originally planned. Read more about the symptoms of the menopause.
To get pregnant naturally, there are some things that you and your partner can do to increase your chances of success. Read more about getting pregnant.
Even if you and your partner are fertile, it can still take up to two years to become pregnant. If you have any concerns or questions, discuss them with your GP or your cancer specialist or nurse.
If either your fertility or your ability to have sex has been affected by your cancer or a cancer treatment, you may want to try a fertility treatment to help you conceive. If you are considering having fertility treatment, speak to your GP first. If you have private fertility treatment, the cost will vary from clinic to clinic.
Your GP will be able to arrange some tests and refer you to a specialist fertility doctor. The specialist will be able to give you information and advice about the most appropriate fertility treatments for you. Types of fertility treatment include the use of:
- in vitro fertilisation (IVF)
- your frozen sperm, embryos, eggs or ovarian tissue
- donated sperm, eggs or embryos
Read more about fertility treatments on the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority website.
Trying for a family and finding out whether or not you're fertile can be stressful. If you’re finding any of these issues difficult, you may find that it helps to talk to someone. Consider discussing your feelings with your family, your partner, a friend or your cancer specialist.
Read more about getting support if you have fertility problems.
Some people find that fertility treatments do not suit them or don’t work. If this is the case, there are other options for having a family, such as adoption or surrogacy. Or you may consider not having children. There is a lot to think about if you’re considering any of these options, so talk them through with someone close to you or your doctor, or contact one of the organisations below for specific information and advice.
- Adoption UK
- British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
- British Infertility Counselling Association (BICA)
- Childlessness Overcome Through Surrogacy (COTS)
- Donor Conception Network
- Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA)
- Infertility Network UK (Free helpline: 0800 008 7464)
- Macmillan Cancer Support (Free helpline: 0808 808 00 00)