Is It True Radiation Can Hurt Your Ability To Produce Eggs And Get Pregnant?

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Although radiation therapy can be an effective treatment for cancers and tumors, there's no denying it can cause some life-changing side effects. One complication that can occur is the radiation can damage the uterus, cervix, fallopian tubes, and ovaries, or cause early menopause, which may lead to temporary or permanent infertility. If your doctor has recommended radiation therapy to treat your disease and you want to protect you ability to have children in the future, here are three options available to you.

Embryo or Egg Freezing

Egg and embryo freezing are two similar procedures that can help preserve your ability to have children. The only practical difference between the two is that egg freezing involves extracting and freezing your eggs, while embryo freezing goes a step further and involves fertilizing the eggs and freezing the resulting embryos.

Of all the options available for protecting your fertility, these two are probably the best ones. Even though the radiation may destroy reproductive parts that are critical for conceiving and carrying a child, your eggs or embryos can still be implanted in a surrogate who can carry the baby to term.

However, there are some practical concerns with this option. First, there's a time factor to consider. Typically, you will be required to take fertility drugs for a period of weeks to increase the number of eggs you produce before they are retrieved, fertilized, and preserved. If the type of cancer you have is particularly aggressive, that may be time you don't have.

Second, if you opt for embryo freezing, you must obtain donor sperm for the fertilization process, which can cause future legal complications. For instance, if you get sperm from your spouse and the two of you divorce at a later date, you may have to fight for "custody" of the frozen embryos and permission to use them.

Lastly, not all eggs and embryos survive the cryopreservation process. The chances of survival are tied to a person's age. A 2013 study found the chances for live birth was 31.5 percent for eggs that were frozen when the individual was 25 versus 19.3 percent for eggs frozen when the donor was 35. This is because people with ovaries are born with all the eggs they will ever produce in their lifetimes. As they age, so does the ovum, which impacts survivability even in natural births. Therefore, you may need to donate quite a few eggs to mitigate any losses that may occur.

Moving Ovaries from Harms Way

Another option for protecting your fertility is to undergo a special procedure called an oophoropexy. This procedure involves literally moving the ovaries out of the zone where the radiation will be directed. Once the treatment concludes, the ovaries are returned to their original place. This is good option for cancers that occur in the uterus, cervix, or other areas near the ovaries.

Like with embryo and ovum freezing, there are a couple of concerns associated with this issue. Although radiation can be directed, it's not always precise and may still reach the ovaries or their blood supply depending on where the cancer is in your body. Additionally, while the ovaries may be protected, other reproductive structures might be damaged by the radiation that may make it difficult to conceive or carry a pregnancy to term.

However, preserving your ovaries leaves the door open to having a child by surrogacy, so this may still be a viable option for preserving your fertility.

Experimental Ovarian Tissue Preservation

A third choice for protecting your fertility is an experimental procedure involving removing ovarian tissue and cryopreserving it. Upon completion of the radiation treatment, the tissue is grafted back on to the ovary. The idea is similar to egg freezing, except the section of ovarian tissue removed contains hundreds to thousands of immature eggs versus the 10 or so that can be harvested during an egg freezing procedure. The hope is that the tissue will begin functioning as normal and producing ovum once transplanted back into the body.

This procedure is fairly new, so it's difficult to determine the likelihood of success, though people have successfully gotten pregnant and given birth after undergoing it.

There may be other options for preserving your fertility when being treated with radiation. Discuss the issue with a doctor and pregnancy counselor to determine the best choice for you.