Women's options after cancer treatment

Sunday 1 June, 2014

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On this page: Natural conception | Donor eggs and embryos | Key points

Related pages: Women's fertility and cancer treatmentWomen's options before cancer treatment

You may have limited fertility options after cancer treatment. Your ability to become pregnant may depend on whether you have been through premature ovarian failure or early menopause.

If you harvested and stored eggs or embyros, you may choose to use them after treatment is finished.

Natural conception

Your medical team might advise you to try for a baby naturally after finishing cancer treatment. If your body is producing eggs, it may be possible to fall pregnant.

If you would like to fall pregnant naturally, speak with your cancer specialist first. You may be advised to wait six months to two years before trying to conceive. The length of time depends on the type of cancer and treatment.

Women who have had chemotherapy or pelvic radiotherapy are at risk of sudden menopause, even after periods resume. If this is permanent, it means you will no longer be able to conceive naturally.

"A little over a year after I finished Herceptin, and a year and a half after chemotherapy, we tried to get pregnant. The very next time that I had a menstrual cycle I fell pregnant and that was my daughter." – Michelle

Donor eggs and embryos

If you have ovarian failure after cancer treatment, using donor eggs or embryos may be the only way for you to try for a pregnancy.

These options are available to women with a healthy uterus who can be pregnant, and there may be an age limit of about 51.

Hormones may be given to prepare your body to receive the donor egg or embryo, and until the pregnancy is viable. For this reason, women who have hormone-sensitive cancer may not be able to carry a donor egg or embryo. Surrogacy may be an option in this case.

Donor eggs

Most IVF units can recommend centres that have donor egg programs. These centres are located overseas, have waiting lists and require payment. A donor egg may also be provided by a family member or friend who is willing to donate, or someone you don’t know. Regardless of where the egg comes from, the donor goes through a thorough screening process.

When the egg is removed from the donor’s body, it is fertilised by sperm and the resulting embryo is inserted into your uterus. See more information about this general IVF process, which takes about 6–8 weeks per cycle for donor eggs.

Egg donation may be more expensive than standard IVF, as you may be paying costs related to the donor hormone stimulation process.

Donor embryos

If you use a donated embryo, you can become pregnant without having a genetic relationship to the baby.

Your body will be prepared for pregnancy using hormones, then a thawed embryo will be transferred into your uterus through the IVF process.

Embryo donations usually come from couples who had fertility treatments and have spare frozen embryos that they don’t wish to use themselves. Embryos may be donated for ethical reasons (instead of destroying the embyros) or compassionate reasons (to help someone struggling with infertility). 

Counselling: donor tissue

There are social, legal and moral considerations when using donor eggs or embryos.

Some issues include what the child will or won’t be told in the future, and the relationship between the donor and the child. Different states have different laws on assisted reproductive technology, and this is an evolving area of law.

It’s important to speak with a fertility counsellor, who can help you make an informed decision. If you are particularly concerned about using a donor egg or embryo, you may wish to see a lawyer. 

Key points

  • You may be at risk of sudden, premature menopause. This may be permanent.
  • If you have eggs, you may be able to conceive naturally. You might be advised to wait a certain period before falling pregnant.
  • If you can’t use your own eggs but wish to become pregnant, you may use donor eggs or embryos. These can also be used with a surrogate.

Reviewed by: Prof Martha Hickey, Head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Melbourne, VIC; Franca Agresta, Clinical Research Manager, Melbourne IVF, VIC; Alyssa White, National Publications Project Manager, Cancer Council NSW; and Georgia Mills, Cancer Survivor.
Updated: 01 Jun, 2014