Ovarian Cancer and Pregnancy: Exploring Your Fertility Options

June 6, 2024

Ovarian Cancer and Pregnancy: Exploring Your Fertility Options

Ovarian cancer is a challenging diagnosis that can have a significant impact on a woman’s life, including her fertility. As a leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women, ovarian cancer not only threatens a woman’s health but also her dreams of starting or expanding her family. In this article, we’ll explore the relationship between ovarian cancer and pregnancy, discuss fertility preservation options, and provide guidance on coping with the emotional aspects of potential fertility loss.

What is Fertility Loss?

Fertility loss, or infertility, refers to a woman’s inability to conceive or carry a pregnancy to term. When a woman is given an ovarian cancer diagnosis, her fertility may be compromised due to the cancer itself or the treatments required to combat the disease. Several factors can influence the risk of fertility loss due to ovarian cancer treatment, including:

  • Age: Women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer at a younger age may have a better chance of preserving their fertility compared to older women.
  • Current fertility status: A woman’s fertility status at the time of diagnosis, such as whether she has gone through puberty or is in menopause, can impact her options for fertility preservation.
  • Type and duration of cancer treatments: Different cancer treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, can have varying effects on fertility, depending on the type and duration of the treatment.

When to Ask About Fertility

It is crucial for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer to discuss their fertility concerns with their healthcare team before starting treatment. This conversation should take place as early as possible, even if the woman has not yet considered having children or is unsure about her future family plans. Some key questions to ask your healthcare team include:

  • How will my cancer treatment affect my fertility?
  • What are my options for preserving my fertility before treatment begins?
  • Are there any fertility-sparing treatment options available for my specific type and stage of ovarian cancer?
  • How long should I wait after treatment before trying to conceive?

In some cases, a woman may receive an unexpected ovarian cancer diagnosis, such as during emergency surgery. While it may not be possible to have a detailed discussion about fertility preservation in these situations, it is still essential to address these concerns with your healthcare team as soon as possible after the diagnosis.

Can You Get Pregnant After Having Ovarian Cancer?

The possibility of getting pregnant after ovarian cancer depends on several factors, including:

  • Type and stage of cancer: Early-stage ovarian cancers that are confined to one ovary may allow for fertility-sparing surgeries, increasing the chance of future pregnancy.
  • Treatment received: The type of treatment a woman receives, such as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy, can impact her fertility differently.

In some cases, women may be able to conceive naturally after ovarian cancer treatment. However, it is essential to consult with both oncologists and gynecologists to assess the safety and timing of attempting pregnancy after cancer treatment.

Fertility-Sparing Surgeries for Ovarian Cancer

For some women with early-stage ovarian cancer, fertility-sparing surgeries may be an option. These procedures aim to remove the cancerous tissue while preserving the woman’s reproductive organs. Two common fertility-sparing surgeries include:

  • Unilateral salpingo-oophorectomy: This procedure involves the removal of one ovary and its corresponding fallopian tube, allowing the remaining ovary to continue functioning and maintain fertility. (Read more about oophorectomy surgery here).
  • Ovarian tumor resection: In this surgery, the cancerous portion of the ovary is removed while preserving as much healthy ovarian tissue as possible, minimizing the impact on fertility. This procedure is different from an ovarian cystectomy, which involves removing non-cancerous cysts.

It’s important to note that fertility-sparing surgeries are not always an option and depend on factors such as the stage and type of ovarian cancer, as well as the patient’s age and overall health. Your gynecologic oncologist can help determine if these procedures are appropriate for your specific case.

How Will Treatment Affect Future Pregnancies?

Ovarian cancer treatments can have a significant impact on a woman’s fertility and future pregnancies. Some potential effects include:

  • Surgery: Removal of one or both ovaries, fallopian tubes, or the uterus can greatly impact a woman’s ability to conceive naturally.
  • Chemotherapy: Certain chemotherapy drugs can damage the ovaries, leading to premature ovarian failure or early menopause. This can result in a decreased egg supply and reduced fertility.
  • Radiation therapy: Radiation directed at the pelvic area can damage the ovaries and uterus, increasing the risk of miscarriage, early birth, or low birth weight.

It is crucial for women to discuss the potential effects of each treatment option on their fertility with their healthcare team. This information can help women make informed decisions about their treatment plan and explore fertility preservation options.

Fertility Options: Trying to Conceive After Ovarian Cancer

For women who wish to have children after ovarian cancer treatment, several fertility options may be available, depending on their individual circumstances. These options include:

  • In vitro fertilization (IVF): IVF involves fertilizing an egg with sperm in a laboratory setting and then transferring the resulting embryo into the woman’s uterus. This option may be suitable for women who have had one ovary removed but still have a functioning uterus.
  • Surrogacy: For women who have had both ovaries or their uterus removed, surrogacy may be an option. This involves using the woman’s own eggs (if previously frozen) or donor eggs, which are then fertilized and transferred to a gestational carrier who carries the pregnancy to term.
  • Adoption and fostering: Women who are unable to conceive or carry a pregnancy after ovarian cancer treatment may choose to build their family through adoption or fostering.

It is essential to note that women may need to wait a certain period after cancer treatment before attempting to conceive. This waiting period can vary depending on the type and stage of cancer, as well as the treatments received. Consulting with both a gynecologic oncologist and a reproductive specialist can help determine the appropriate timeline for trying to conceive.

Fertility Preservation Options for Women with Ovarian Cancer

For women who have not yet started ovarian cancer treatment, fertility preservation options may be available to increase the chances of future pregnancy. These options include:

  • Egg freezing (oocyte cryopreservation): This procedure involves harvesting a woman’s eggs, freezing them, and storing them for future use. When the woman is ready to conceive, the eggs can be thawed, fertilized, and transferred to her uterus or a gestational carrier.
  • Embryo freezing (embryo banking): Similar to egg freezing, this process involves harvesting the woman’s eggs, fertilizing them with sperm in a laboratory, and then freezing the resulting embryos for future use.
  • Ovarian tissue freezing: This experimental procedure involves removing and freezing a portion of the ovarian tissue before cancer treatment. The tissue can later be transplanted back into the woman’s body, potentially restoring ovarian function and fertility.
  • Ovarian shielding: During radiation therapy, a special shield can be used to protect the ovaries from damage, helping to preserve fertility.
  • Ovarian suppression: Certain medications, such as gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists, can be used to suppress ovarian function during chemotherapy, potentially reducing the risk of damage to the ovaries.
  • Ovarian transposition surgery: This procedure involves surgically relocating the ovaries away from the radiation field to minimize damage during treatment.

It is important to discuss these fertility preservation options with your healthcare team to determine which methods may be most suitable for your individual situation.

Navigating the Emotional Challenges of Ovarian Cancer and Fertility

Facing potential fertility loss due to ovarian cancer can be an emotionally challenging experience. Women may experience a range of emotions, including grief, anger, guilt, shame, and low self-esteem. It is essential to acknowledge these feelings and seek support from loved ones, healthcare professionals, and support groups.

Some strategies for coping with the emotional impact of potential fertility loss include:

  • Seeking counseling or therapy to process your emotions and develop coping strategies
  • Joining ovarian cancer support groups to connect with other women who understand your experiences
  • Discussing your feelings openly with your partner, family, and friends
  • Exploring alternative options for building a family, such as surrogacy, adoption, or fostering
  • Focusing on self-care activities that promote physical, emotional, and mental well-being

At Not These Ovaries, we understand the emotional toll that ovarian cancer can take on women and their families. That’s why we work tirelessly to fund research and clinical trials that not only improve ovarian cancer outcomes but also prioritize quality of life issues, such as fertility preservation. By supporting our mission, you can help us provide hope and resources to women facing this challenging diagnosis.

Ovarian cancer and pregnancy may seem like incompatible concepts, but with advancements in cancer treatment and fertility preservation options, many women are now able to fulfill their dreams of motherhood after overcoming this disease. By understanding the impact of ovarian cancer on fertility, exploring available options, and seeking support for the emotional challenges, women can make informed decisions about their treatment and future family planning.

If you or a loved one is facing ovarian cancer, remember that you are not alone. Reach out to your healthcare team, support networks, and organizations like Not These Ovaries for guidance, resources, and hope. Together, we can work towards a future where ovarian cancer is no longer a barrier to living a full and fulfilling life.