Facts

Q&A On Fertility After Adolescent or Young Adult Cancer

by St. Baldrick's Foundation
June 9, 2022

Each survivor’s risk of late effects of cancer treatment depends on their tumor, specific treatments, age, genetic makeup and other factors. Surgeries, chemotherapies, radiation, stem cell transplants and other treatments take a toll on the body – and sometimes the mind – in many ways. Some late effects make life more difficult; others are life-threatening.

Heart and lung problems are common, as are secondary cancers.

Other late effects can include hearing problems, hormonal imbalances, difficulty growing, mental health needs or cognitive deficiencies, bone density issues and easy bone fractures, fertility and reproductive problems, and more.

Survivorship is a lifelong journey. By age 50 childhood cancer survivors have experienced, on average, 17 adverse effects, 3 to 5 of those being severe to life-threatening. Also by age 50, over 99% of today’s childhood cancer survivors have a chronic health problem by age 50 because of the treatments they had as kids.

We asked St. Baldrick’s Scholar Dr. Hazel Nichols to tell us about some of the reproductive health issues faced by adolescent and young adult (AYA) cancer survivors:  

How does cancer treatment impact fertility?

Cancer treatments can potentially affect future fertility. For example, radiation therapy to or near the abdomen, pelvis, or spine can harm nearby reproductive organs. Radiation therapy to the brain can also damage the pituitary gland, which helps control the production of certain hormones needed for pregnancy.

Some types of chemotherapy can affect the ovaries, reducing the number of eggs and changing hormone levels. Having been treated for cancer during adolescence and young adulthood can also affect sexual health, body image, and financial stability during childbearing years.

Read about 2012 St. Baldrick’s Ambassador Sarah’s dreams of becoming a mom here 

Do patients or their families receive counseling on these options?

Counseling patients on the effects of cancer treatment on fertility and options for fertility preservation is recognized as a critical part of high-quality cancer care. National guidelines recommend fertility counseling for AYA patients before cancer treatment.

However, fertility counseling has been described as one of the most under prescribed and least implemented services in cancer care. More than half of AYA cancer survivors report needing more information for reproductive planning both before and after cancer treatment. This unmet need has been associated with lower emotional functioning and health-related quality of life.

How is your St. Baldrick’s supported research helping childhood cancer survivors?

Despite advances in fertility preservation options and recognition of fertility counseling as a part of high-quality cancer care, the incidence of post-diagnosis childbirth has remained stable for many years.

My research is working to understand what the needs and challenges are for accessing fertility-related services.

Specifically, I am examining AYA cancer survivors’ age, race, and rural residence in relation to using fertility preservation options. We hypothesized that fertility preservation will be more common at older ages and in more recent diagnosis years, and will be less common for AYAs with a rural residence or African American race. Our research helps identify barriers to use of fertility services to inform strategies to improve cancer care delivery.

We showed that, during 2004-2015, only 1.2% of female AYA cancer survivors froze eggs or embryos for fertility preservation after cancer diagnosis in North Carolina. Younger women were 6 times more likely to use fertility preservation than older women. Women who were Black or who lived in rural areas or had lower socioeconomic status or had children at diagnosis were less than half as likely to use fertility preservation. We believe these results highlight the barriers that that cost creates for accessing fertility preservation, and caution that women who have children already may less often receive fertility counseling around having additional children in the future.

June is National Cancer Survivor Month, a time to celebrate childhood cancer survivors – and to keep the focus on progress. St. Baldrick’s will continue to support research not only to find new cures, but better ones.

(2022). Disparities in fertility preservation use among adolescent and young adult women with cancer. Journal of cancer survivorship : research and practice, 10.1007/s11764-022-01187-y. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11764-022-01187-y

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