When a child or adolescent is diagnosed with cancer, there are many issues to consider. Often the focus is on survival, so children, teens and parents may not immediately think about fertility. However, the majority of young people survive cancer, and fertility may become important as they reach puberty (sexual maturity) and adulthood.
Some cancer treatments do not affect a child’s reproductive system. Others can damage the ovaries, which contain eggs, or the testicles, which make sperm. Sometimes this damage is temporary, but it can be permanent.
In many cases, decisions about fertility preservation are made before treatment begins. This is a difficult time, and often the decision involves specialists, the young person and their parents or carers. Parents of young children under 18 will usually need to consent to any fertility preservation procedures.
Resources for young people
Canteen’s resource Maybe later baby? provides age-appropriate information about the impact of cancer on fertility. Future Fertility also has more information and stories specific to children and adolescents.
The National Ovarian and Testicular Tissue Transport and Cryopreservation Service allows young people to have their ovarian or testicular tissue harvested by their own fertility specialist and then transported for storage at the national cryo-bank at the Royal Women’s Hospital Melbourne.
Learn more about young people and cancer
Preserving fertility in young females
The options will depend on whether the young person has been through puberty. Most young females go through puberty between the ages of 8 and 13.
- Removing and freezing ovarian tissue (ovarian cryopreservation). When needed, the tissue is put back into the body. The ovarian tissue contains underdeveloped immature eggs.
- Experiments are being done to mature the eggs in a laboratory before freezing, but this technique is under development and not widely available.
- There have been several births worldwide from ovarian tissue removed before puberty.
- Collecting and freezing mature eggs or ovarian tissue (cryopreservation).
- Taking a long-acting hormone called GnRH may reduce activity in the ovaries or ovarian tissue and protect eggs from damage.
- Checking hormone levels to assess fertility, as young females may be fertile, but go through early menopause.
Before or after puberty
- Shielding the abdominal area during radiation therapy to the pelvis to provide some level of protection to the ovaries.
- Surgically moving the ovaries away from the field of radiation (ovarian transposition).
- If the ovaries aren’t protected, the risk of ovarian failure is higher (premature ovarian insufficiency).
Preserving fertility in young males
The options will depend on whether the young person has been through puberty. Most young males go through puberty between the ages of 9 and 14. After puberty, semen contains mature sperm.
- There are no proven fertility preservation methods for young males who have not gone through puberty.
- Freezing testicular tissue (testicular tissue cryopreservation) is being tested with young boys at high risk of infertility. Tissue that contains cells that make sperm is removed from the testicles through a small cut. This technique is not widely available and is still considered experimental.
- Sperm banking (cryopreservation) can be used to collect, freeze and store mature sperm for later use with IVF.
- Testicular sperm extraction can remove sperm cells from the testicles, which are frozen and stored for later use with IVF. This technique is not widely available.
- Having tests to assess fertility, as young males may have erections and ejaculate, but not be fertile.
Before or after puberty
- Shielding the testicles with protective lead coverings during radiation therapy to the pelvis provides some level of protection.
- If this area is not protected, sperm production may be affected, which could cause infertility.
Fertility and Cancer
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Expert content reviewers:
Dr Ying Li, Gynaecologist and Fertility Specialist, RPA Fertility Unit, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, NSW; Dr Antoinette Anazodo, Paediatric and Adolescent Oncologist, Sydney Children’s Hospital and Prince of Wales Hospital, NSW, and Lead Clinician for Youth Cancer NSW/ACT; Paul Baden, Consumer; Dawn Bedwell, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland; Maurice Edwards, Special Counsel, Watts McCray Lawyers, NSW; Helena Green, Clinical Sexologist and Counsellor, InSync for Life, WA; Dr Michelle Peate, Program Leader, Psychosocial Health and Wellbeing Research (emPoWeR) Unit, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Royal Women’s Hospital, The University of Melbourne, VIC; A/Prof Kate Stern, Gynaecologist and Reproductive Endocrinologist and Head, Fertility Preservation Service, Royal Women’s Hospital Melbourne, The University of Melbourne, VIC; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Health Psychology, Translational Health Research Institute (THRI), School of Medicine, Western Sydney University, NSW; Renee Van Den Bosch, Consumer.
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The information on this webpage was adapted from Fertility and Cancer - A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends (2020 edition). This webpage was last updated in March 2022.