Fertility & cancer

Sunday 1 June, 2014

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On this page: How cancer can affect fertility | The reproductive systems | The female reproductive system | The male reproductive system

Many factors can affect a person’s fertility. It naturally declines with age, but it can also be affected by being under- or overweight, smoking or having a health issue, such as endometriosis, pelvic disease or cancer.

Fertility problems may be the result of either the woman or the man being unable to conceive, or both.

If you aren’t able to conceive or carry a pregnancy to term after one year of regular, unprotected sex, it’s known as infertility.

How cancer can affect fertility

Cancer and its treatment may cause fertility problems. The impact will depend on the type of cancer and treatment you have.

  • Women may not produce enough eggs, have problems with the hormones signalling between the brain and the ovaries, or have damaged reproductive organs. Reproductive organs may be removed during an operation. See women’s fertility and cancer treatment.
  • Men may experience fertility issues related to the sperm production and quality – for instance, the sperm may not have the right characteristics, or there can be issues related to sperm transport, such as movement (motility) and blocked pathways that carry sperm. Sometimes reproductive organs are removed during an operation. See men’s fertility and cancer treatment.

There are ways to overcome infertility. Many people have medical procedures to help them conceive – these are known as assisted reproductive technology or fertility treatments. Find out more about some common fertility treatment options for women and men.

Infertility is relatively common – one in six Australian couples has problems conceiving or falling pregnant for a range of reasons. Infertility can be difficult to come to terms with. See our information about emotional and relationship issues.

The reproductive systems

Being familiar with the male and female reproductive systems may help you to understand fertility issues and treatments.

A healthy woman of childbearing age releases an egg (ovum – the female reproductive cell) each month. This is called ovulation. The egg travels from the ovary, down the fallopian tube and into the uterus.

Sperm (the male reproductive cell) is contained in the semen. This fluid is ejaculated from the penis during orgasm (sexual climax).

If sperm reaches a woman’s egg, this is called fertilisation. This may lead to implantation into the lining of the uterus, where the cells can multiply and develop into a foetus. If it is not fertilised, the egg and lining of the uterus will come out of the body during the woman’s monthly period (menstruation). 

The female reproductive system

The female reproductive system

 The female reproductive system allows a woman to conceive a baby and become pregnant. It consists of the following organs:

  • Ovaries
    Two small, oval-shaped organs in the lower abdomen. They contain follicles that hold immature eggs (oocytes) that eventually become mature eggs. The ovaries also release the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone.
  • Uterus (womb)
    The hollow organ where a baby (foetus) grows. It is joined to the vagina by the cervix.
  • Fallopian tubes
    Tubes that connect each ovary to the uterus.
  • Cervix
    The lower, cylinder-shaped neck of the uterus. It produces moisture to lubricate the vagina. It also holds a foetus in the uterus during pregnancy and widens during childbirth.
  • Vagina (birth canal)
    A muscular tube that extends from the opening of the uterus to the vulva. It is the passageway through which menstrual blood flows, sexual intercourse occurs and a baby is born.
  • Vulva
    The external part of a woman’s sex organs.

Women usually menstruate until the age of 45–55, when monthly periods end. This is called menopause and it indicates the natural end of a woman’s reproductive years. If it occurs before age 45, this may be called early menopause.

The male reproductive system

The male reproductive system

The male reproductive system allows a man to father a baby. It consists of the following organs:

  • Testicles
    Two small, egg-shaped glands that make and store sperm, and produce the male hormone testosterone, which is responsible for the development of male characteristics, sexual drive (libido) and the ability to have an erection.
  • Scrotum
    The pouch of skin behind the penis containing the testicles.
  • Epididymis
    A structure that stores immature sperm, attached to the back of each testicle and the spermatic cord.
  • Spermatic cords and vas deferens
    The tubes running from each testicle to the penis. They contain blood vessels, nerves, and lymph vessels, and carry sperm towards the penis.
  • Penis
    The main external sex organ, through which urine and semen pass.
  • Prostate
    A gland that produces fluid which makes up a large part of semen. It is located near nerves, blood vessels and muscles needed to control bladder function and to achieve an erection.
  • Seminal vesicles
    Glands close to the prostate that produce part of the semen.

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