Some young women will develop a cancer involving their reproductive organs before they have completed their family.
The cancer may pose a significant threat to your subsequent chance of having a baby. This presents a further psychological burden when you are already coping with the recent distressing news that you have cancer.
In this time of anxiety and concern, it is essential that you receive concise and up-to-date information from a recognised fertility expert. You should be referred to a respected unit for this advice. The Reproductive Technology Accreditation Committee, under the Fertility Society of Australia, administers a national code of practice and a system for the accreditation of assisted reproductive technology clinics. For a list of accredited clinics in Australia and New Zealand, see the website of the Fertility Society of Australia.
The way that the cancer may affect your chance of conceiving is two-fold. Fertility problems may occur as a result of essential surgery, or as a result of chemotherapy or radiotherapy after the surgery.
Many women also experience body-image concerns after surgery, which may lead to having sexual intercourse less frequently. This is a major determinant of the chance of conceiving naturally; hence, for many reasons, many women will seek fertility assistance.
In most cases, fallopian tube cancer is treated by hysterectomy (removal of the uterus), and removal of both ovaries and fallopian tubes. This means that it is no longer possible to become pregnant.
There are some situations where the cancer is very early and is confined to just one fallopian tube, and there is no evidence of spread elsewhere in the body. In this case, it may be possible to keep the other ovary, tube and uterus, and the woman may be able to retain her fertility.
This is not a very common situation because fallopian tube cancer is usually more advanced when it is diagnosed, but the desire for fertility should always be discussed with your gynaecologic oncologist, so that if your cancer is discovered to be at a very early stage, a lesser but adequate treatment option can be considered.
If one ovary remains after surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy may affect the number of eggs left within the ovary and, in many cases, accelerate the normal age-related decline in egg numbers.
In some cases, this may lead to an early menopause, and hence the need to use another woman’s eggs (egg donation treatment) to become pregnant. Hormone replacement therapy can help with managing the symptoms of early menopause.
If an ovary is retained, you can talk to a fertility specialist about your options to limit the harm from chemotherapy.
These may include the following.
An implant containing a drug called a GnRH analogue may be used to suppress the function of the ovaries for the duration of chemotherapy. There is some evidence that this may limit harm to the ovaries for women embarking on chemotherapy only.
Ovarian tissue freezing
One potential way to save some eggs for the future is to take a small slice of ovarian tissue. This is done by a minor operation before starting chemotherapy, or at the time of ovarian transposition surgery before starting radiotherapy.
The major downside to this technique is that it is still experimental – very few babies have been born from this treatment. Furthermore, it involves undergoing an operation, and then further surgery to reimplant the ovarian tissue. Evidence suggests that many women do not want the ovarian tissue replaced because of their fear of reintroducing tissue that may still contain cancer cells.
Freezing of eggs
If you are not in a stable relationship, you may opt to go through an IVF cycle. This takes up to one month before chemotherapy or radiotherapy starts. It involves daily injections to stimulate the ovaries and then, after a couple of weeks, a minor surgical procedure to have the eggs collected. These eggs are then rapidly frozen until they are needed. However, this technique should still be considered developmental, and success so far is limited.
If you are in a stable relationship and time permits, you may opt to go through an IVF cycle (described above), but in this case your eggs are fertilised with your partner’s sperm and the resulting embryos are frozen until they are used. The freezing of embryos is a more successful procedure than the freezing of eggs.
‘Wait and see’ policy
Many women find that these choices are too hard to make at this time of great anxiety. It may help to talk to the fertility counsellor who is always attached to an IVF unit.