Fertility in young women
Cancer, and some cancer treatments, can have an effect on your fertility.
In women, fertility means being able to get pregnant. The parts of your body that allow you to make babies are called your reproductive system.
A woman has eggs stored in her ovaries. A man makes sperm in his testicles. To make a baby, one of your eggs needs to be fertilised by a sperm.
You are born with a large number of eggs that are stored in your ovaries. No more eggs are made after you are born.
Once a month, one of your ovaries releases an egg. This is called ovulation. It happens from the age you go through puberty to the age you have the menopause (see below). This process is controlled by chemicals in the body called hormones. The main female hormones are called oestrogen and progesterone. They are made in the ovaries.
After being released from the ovary, the egg moves along the fallopian tube. This is where it can be fertilised by a sperm. If it is fertilised, it is called an embryo. The embryo will continue to move to the womb, where it can bury itself into the womb lining and grow into a baby. If the egg isn’t fertilised, it will be released from the body 14 days later with some of the womb lining, as a period.
As women get older, hormone levels in the body change. The ovaries stop releasing eggs each month and periods stop. This is known as the menopause and means you can’t get pregnant anymore.
It might help to look at our information about the female sex organs.
Cancer treatment and fertility
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Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will talk to you about your treatment options and their possible side effects. The main treatments are:
After diagnosis, it can feel like everything happens very quickly. It will take some time for you to adjust to the changes in your life. Try to talk to your family and friends about what’s happening to you and how you feel.
How treatment can affect fertility in women
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For women, cancer treatment may:
damage the eggs or ovaries
make periods irregular or stop for a while (known as temporary infertility)
cause an early menopause and permanent infertility.
Some cancer treatments can affect the ovaries and cause an early menopause. This means that some women won’t be able to have children using their own eggs. This is also known as premature ovarian failure or premature menopause. Some cancer treatments can cause a temporary menopause or menopausal symptoms, such as hot flushes or a lower sex drive.
Other effects on fertility
When women go through stressful situations such as serious illness, it can affect their periods. Their periods may:
stop altogether for a time and then restart
stop and not restart (see ‘Early menopause’ above).
Any problems that stop you having sex may also stop you getting pregnant, even if you’re still making healthy eggs.
Some treatments can cause long-term damage to the heart or kidneys. If this happens to a woman, she may be advised not to get pregnant. If this applies to you, your doctor will give you more information.
We have more information about how cancer treatments can affect your fertility, which has been written for women of all ages, not specifically for teens and young adults.
Throughout your treatment and for up to a year afterwards, you should use a barrier form of contraception (such as condoms or the cap). This is because some side effects of cancer treatment, such as sickness and diarrhoea, can make other contraceptives (like the pill) less effective.
It’s important that you don’t become pregnant or father a child while you are having treatment. Cancer treatments may damage sperm, which could affect a baby that is conceived at this time.
Cancer treatments may also harm a developing baby. It can be confusing if you’re being told to use contraception while your doctors are also talking about how treatment might affect your fertility. Even though your doctors will talk to you about your fertility and ways of preserving it, sometimes this is just a precaution. The doctors can’t know how the cancer or its treatment will affect your fertility. It is possible that you will remain fertile throughout treatment.