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Young female cancer patients not informed of fertility options

31 May 2016
Appeared in BioNews 853

A majority of female cancer patients with 'uncertain' fertility status have said they were not given enough information about the risks of infertility resulting from their treatment, a survey has found.

Researchers in the USA surveyed 346 women aged between 25 and 34 years old who had completed cancer treatment on average five years previously. Of this group, 179 said they definitely wanted to have children in the future, or were unsure but would consider it, but had not attempted to preserve their fertility before or after cancer treatment.

The results, published in the journal Cancer, showed that 43 to 62 percent of this group of 179 felt they did not receive the information they needed regarding their fertility options. The greatest fertility-related concerns among the women were the inability to have children and the health of their future children, but around 60 percent said there were not adequately informed about the risks of infertility or early menopause. 

The authors concluded that not knowing about the different fertility options was the greatest factor leading to confusion about decision-making following cancer treatment among young women.

'The potential loss of fertility has been described in the literature as being almost as painful, if not more so, than the cancer diagnosis itself,' said Dr Catherine Benedict from North Shore–Long Island Jewish Medical Center, New York, and the first author of the paper.

'Failure to provide information and address concerns with respect to fertility-related decisions may have lasting consequences for young women who hope to move on from their cancer experience to achieve important life goals such as having children,' she added.

The authors suggest that women who survive cancer should be given a comprehensive reproductive health counselling once the treatment is over. This should include information about post-treatment fertility preservation options and family-building alternatives.

Most studies have focused on supporting women to make decisions about their fertility before the start of cancer treatment. However, most patients do not or cannot preserve their fertility before treatment for a number of reasons. These include not having enough time to retrieve eggs before cancer treatment must start and economic reasons. Only 21 of the women surveyed had preserved their fertility before treatment.

Dr Kutluk Oktay, director of the Innovation Institute for Fertility Preservation and IVF in New York, who was not involved in the study, told Fox News: 'Before treatment, women should ask what is known about the drugs or treatments they're about to receive in terms of the likelihood of damage to ovaries and eggs.'

He added: 'Patients should also ask for a referral to a specialist who can discuss the fertility implications of treatment and options to preserve fertility.'

Cancer treatment can lead to early menopause, meaning that women may have a shorter time to have children. There are some options available for women who wish to have children following their cancer treatment, such as egg or embryo freezing.

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