Men, Fertility, and Cancer

Men who confront a cancer diagnosis before beginning or completing their families may have many questions about how cancer treatment will affect their ability to have children in the future. The good news is that an increasing amount of attention is being devoted to this topic, and there are steps that you may be able to take to preserve your reproductive options. The best time to talk about this issue with your doctor is before cancer treatment begins.

How does cancer treatment affect fertility in men?

Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy can temporarily—and in some cases, permanently—stop sperm production by the testes.[1] The extent to which chemotherapy affects sperm production depends on several factors, including the type and dose of chemotherapy.

Radiation: Radiation to the abdomen or pelvis can also reduce or eliminate sperm production by the testes.

Surgery: Surgery that involves the removal of both testicles (an option for some men with prostate cancer) eliminates sperm production, but other types of surgery can also affect a man’s fertility. Some types of pelvic surgery, for example, can change or eliminate ejaculation.

Options for preserving fertility in men

Although many men are able to conceive naturally after cancer treatment, others are not.

If possible, men should talk with their doctor about their future fertility before beginning cancer treatment. Some options for preserving fertility require that steps be taken before cancer treatment begins.

Sperm banking is the most well-established method of preserving fertility in men.[2] It involves the collection and storage of sperm, ideally before cancer treatment begins. The samples are kept frozen at a lab or sperm bank until they are needed. Sperm can be stored in this way for many years. After being thawed, the sperm can be used for intrauterine insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilization (IVF). During IUI, sperm are placed directly into a woman’s uterus. During IVF, mature eggs are removed from a woman’s ovary and mixed with the sperm in the lab. Embryos that result from IVF can then be placed in a woman’s uterus or frozen for later use.

If a sample contains very few viable sperm (or if a man has already undergone cancer treatment and has a low sperm count), another approach may be used to fertilize an egg. Intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) requires only a small number of healthy sperm, along with mature eggs that have been collected from a woman’s ovary. A single sperm is injected directly into each egg. The embryos that develop can then be placed in a woman’s uterus or frozen for later use.

If it is not possible to collect sperm from ejaculate, it may in some cases be possible to collect sperm directly from the testicles. This approach is still investigational.

Finally, it may also be possible to modify some cancer treatments to minimize their effects on subsequent fertility. During radiation therapy, for example, it may be possible to shield the testes in order to preserve sperm production.

Pregnancy after cancer

In the event that your fertility is not affected by cancer treatment (or recovers quickly or unexpectedly), you and your partner should use birth control if you do not wish to have a child. If you are trying to conceive a child naturally, your doctor may advise you to wait for several months after treatment; this allows for the elimination of sperm that may have been damaged during treatment.

In general, the risk of birth defects in children born to cancer survivors appears to be similar to the risk in the general population.[3] If your cancer was due to a hereditary cancer syndrome, such as Lynch syndrome (hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer), your children may inherit the gene mutation responsible for your family’s increased risk of cancer. Talking with a genetic counselor may be helpful.

Other options for parenthood

Not all men have the luxury of being able to explore their reproductive options before beginning cancer treatment, and not all men will find a fertility preservation option that meets their needs. But there are still ways to become a parent. Discussion of other routes to parenthood may be a painful topic for men who want to father a child but cannot. But as cancer survivors consider how best to build their families, methods such as adoption are important options.

Adoption: Couples and individuals who wish to adopt have a range of options, including different types of domestic and international adoptions. You may wish to start by learning about the adoption laws in your state and by talking with other adoptive parents about the professionals and agencies they worked with. Before selecting an adoption agency, you may wish to talk with them about their attitudes toward placing a child with a cancer survivor. Many agencies will be receptive toward this, but it’s important to know before making a final decision.

Donor Sperm: Donor sperm is readily available from sperm banks and can be used for either intrauterine insemination or in vitro fertilization.

Individual decisions within a larger community

The decisions that you make about building a family (or about coming to terms with not building a family) will be intensely personal, but know that you are part of a larger community of patients and healthcare providers who are grappling with these issues.  To think about future parenthood is to think about life after cancer. For many people with cancer, planning for the future may provide the motivation needed to get through treatment.

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[1] Dohle. Male infertility in cancer patients: review of the literature. International Journal of Urology. 2010;17:327-331.

[2] Levine J, Canada A, Stern CJ. Fertility preservation in adolescents and young adults with cancer. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2010;28:4831-4841.

[3] Knopman JM, Papadopoulos EB, Grifo JA, Fino ME, Noyes N. Surviving childhood cancer and reproductive-age malignancy: effects on fertility and future parenthood. Lancet Oncology. 2010;11:490-98.