How Cancer Treatments Impact Fertility

Cancer treatments & infertility at a glance

  • Several cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery, can affect the reproductive system for men and women.
  • Longer treatment periods and higher doses of radiation or chemotherapy increase the risk of adverse affects on fertility.
  • Before undergoing cancer treatment, men and women can preserve their reproductive potential with “fertility preservation” treatments such as egg, sperm or embryo freezing.

Preserving Fertility

Cancer’s affect on fertility: men

Cancer treatments and their affects on male fertility include:

  • Chemotherapy: kills rapidly dividing cells in the body. This targets cancer cells, but kills healthy ones as well. Some chemotherapy agents are more harmful than others, and a man’s age, the type of chemotherapy, and the drug dosage can influence the fertility risk.
  • Radiation: kills rapidly dividing cells in and around a target area. Radiation directed at or near the testicles can genetically damage a man’s sperm or cause infertility. Radiation to the hormone-producing areas of the brain or the pituitary gland may also cause infertility by disrupting normal hormone production. However, radiation to other areas of the body will not affect fertility.
  • Bone Marrow/Stem Cell Transplants: involves high doses of chemotherapy and sometimes, full body radiation. The combination of treatments and their intensity put the patient at high risk of infertility.
  • Medication: targets certain cancer proteins or other cancer characteristics. While the protein-targeting medications may affect fertility, other medications appear to have no affect on male fertility.
  • Surgery: removes cancer-ridden parts of the body. Infertility can result when parts of the reproductive system – such one or both testicles – are removed.

Cancer’s affect on fertility: women

Cancer treatments and their affects on female fertility include:

  • Chemotherapy: kills rapidly dividing cells in the body, targeting cancer cells and healthy ones as well, which can damage or destroy eggs. Age, type of chemotherapy, and the medication dosage can affect risk.
  • Radiation: kills rapidly dividing cells in and around a target area. This can damage the reproductive system when directed at or near the pelvic area. Radiation to the hormone-producing areas of the brain or the pituitary gland may also cause infertility by disrupting normal hormone production. Direction of the radiation and the dose impacts the risk level.
  • Bone Marrow/Stem Cell Transplants: involves high doses of chemotherapy and sometimes, full body radiation. This poses a high infertility risk by damaging ovarian and uterine reproductive systems due to the amount and intensity of treatment. In some cases, the damage may eliminate future chances of carrying a pregnancy.
  • Medication: targets certain cancer proteins, which can affect fertility. Medications that target other cancer characteristics appear to have no affect on female fertility, but can impact pregnancy.
  • Surgery: removes reproductive systems if they are found to contain gynecologic cancers, such as ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, or cervical cancer. Removing the ovaries, uterus, cervix or other reproductive organs can cause infertility and can eliminate chances of carrying a pregnancy.
Looking for more details on how to preserve your fertility before cancer treatments? Visit our page on fertility preservation.

“Moving Forward”

Cancer and its treatment may affect a person’s ability to conceive a child in the future. Get perspectives on fertility and cancer in this video led by medical experts from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). In collaboration with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, ASCO has launched a series of “Moving Forward” videos aimed at helping young adults with cancer.