What is fertility?

Fertility in women means being able to get pregnant and give birth to a baby.

The parts of your body that allow you to do this include your ovaries, fallopian tubes, womb (uterus), cervix and vagina. This is called your reproductive system.

Female bladder ovaries
Female bladder ovaries

View a large version

Read a description of this image

The pituitary gland at the base of your brain is also important for fertility. It releases hormones (chemical messengers) that control how your reproductive system works.

Fertility in women depends on having:

  • a supply of eggs from the ovaries
  • a healthy womb (uterus)
  • suitable hormone levels.

To become pregnant, a woman’s egg needs to be fertilised by a man’s sperm. Normally once a month, from puberty to menopause, one of the ovaries releases an egg.

This process is controlled by hormones produced by the pituitary gland and by the ovaries. The ovaries make the main female hormones oestrogen and progesterone.

The egg moves along the fallopian tube where it can be fertilised by a sperm. The fertilised egg develops into an embryo. The embryo continues to the womb where it can bury itself into the womb lining and grow into a baby. Hormones prepare the lining of the womb for the embryo. If the egg isn’t fertilised, you have a period.

You’re born with a large number of eggs and as you get older, the number and quality of your eggs decreases. When there are very few left, you go through the menopause.

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. For most women, this happens naturally between their mid-40s and mid-50s.

As well as periods stopping, the menopause can also cause:

  • hot flushes and sweats
  • vaginal dryness
  • mood changes
  • altered concentration
  • a low sex drive.

Some cancer treatments can affect the ovaries or the pituitary gland and cause an early menopause. Others can cause a temporary menopause or menopausal symptoms.

Back to Fertility in women

Preserving your fertility

You may be able to freeze eggs, embryos or ovarian tissue before you start your cancer treatment.

Getting support

You may find it helpful to talk to someone about any fertility worries.