Even from the heights of a deep and lasting remission, cancer casts a long shadow. What if the treatment that saved your life also made you infertile? The effects of cancer don't fall away in weeks, months, or even years. Due to improved survivorship, many confront the disease again when they decide to start families. It's OK to wonder, how does cancer affect male fertility, and can I get pregnant if my partner is a cancer survivor?
The good news is that sperm often recovers after cancer treatment. Some experience temporary infertility due to their symptoms — high fevers can impact sperm quality, for instance, found a study in Human Reproduction — and radiation and chemotherapy also cause adverse effects. But sperm production can bounce back. Livestrong reported that when sperm recovers, men can usually conceive within three years of successful therapy. But a lot depends on the type of cancer diagnosed, and the treatment prescribed.
For instance, men with testicular cancer may have one testicle removed. As long as the remaining testicle functions, many still go on to father children. Chemotherapy is more harmful, but the risk of infertility depends on several factors — the drug used, its dose, and the patient's age all come into play, according to the American Cancer Society. But it's not only the pelvic region you have to worry about. Cranial radiation can also devastate male fertility because of its effects on glands in the brain that release hormones crucial to reproduction, noted Livestrong.
Romper spoke with Nilesh Vora, M.D., an oncologist-hematologist at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. He considers chemotherapeutic drugs involving alkylating agents to be especially problematic, as well as radiation to the testes. According to Vora, Hodgkin's lymphoma, testicular cancer, and acute leukemia are the cancers most associated with fertility issues.
If your partner's recently received a cancer diagnosis, he can take steps to preserve his fertility. Vora suggests he ask his oncologist about his chosen treatment, and its possible impact. If the treatment puts him at a high risk for sterility, it's time to visit a fertility specialist.
"We've been freezing sperm in sperm banks for the last 50 years," Jane Frederick, MD, FACOG, tells Romper. Frederick is a world-renowned reproductive endocrinologist at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California. "The egg has been more difficult to freeze because it requires a surgery. It requires hormones for 10 days. It requires that the egg be of good quality, and women have a limited number of eggs." But it's different for men, she explains, who regenerate sperm every 75 days, and often have babies in their 60s and 70s (think Charlie Chaplin, a father at 73).
"The sperm is a sturdy piece of tissue," notes Frederick. "And the head is very dense. You get millions of sperm in each ejaculate, millions. And when you freeze it, usually you don't need that many to get someone pregnant with an in-vitro cycle down the road."
Sperm banking is great insurance against possible fertility loss. It's also a hopeful act, one focused on the future in an a time of existential crisis. To learn more about how cancer affects male fertility, visit Livestrong. The organization boasts an admirable collection of resources for both men and women looking to preserve their fertility.
If you've fallen for a cancer survivor, you already know that survivors are as resilient as it gets. Your partner might or might not have lost his ability to father children in the fight against cancer. Only a visit to a reproductive endocrinologist — and a semen analysis — will tell for sure. Remember that if fertility is an issue, many family-building options remain available. There's no wrong path to parenthood, only differences in the terrain.