No one wants to hear the news that they or their loved ones have been diagnosed with cancer. The disease is an ugly one with many damaging effects on those who encounter it. While some will fight the disease and win, there are ramifications on the body once a patient is in remission. Many patients overlook the effect chemotherapy has on their reproductive organs. As medical advances continue, developments occur on a daily basis in fertility preservation for cancer patients. There are various means of preserving fertility but the most common come in the form of cryopreservation.
Most people refer to cryopreservation as the freezing of an egg or sperm. The concept of maintaining living cells at low temperatures formulated in the late 1940s when and English biologist experimented the idea with cattle. Although technology has since advanced, the first successful freezing and thawing of sperm occurred in the 1950s. Since that time, embryo freezing and IVF have changed quite a bit. These developments have allowed for many successful pregnancies and births. All the success is due to the cryopreserved cells.
The preservation of these living cells is extremely relevant to cancer patients. Due to the harmful nature of chemotherapy, preserving the healthy cells before treatment is necessary. Doing so gives the reproductive cells an opportunity to do their job post-treatment.
For women, there are numerous options for preserving their reproductive organs and cells, but the preservation must occur prior to undergoing any damaging treatments. During the embryo cryopreservation method, eggs are harvested from ovaries. They are then fertilized and stored at freezing temperatures. This process takes place during the start of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Although it can push treatments back a few weeks, it poses great benefit for the future fertility of a cancer patient. Cryopreservation has the highest success rate out of the available fertility preservation techniques.
Another very similar process is simple egg freezing, also known as oocyte cryopreservation. Eggs are still harvested but are not matched with sperm for fertilization. This technique is common in young adults and child cancer patients who are not likely ready for children in the near future.
For men, the process of cryopreservation is also used prior to undergoing cancer treatment. Sperm samples are collected before any chemotherapy or radiation begins. Once collected, the samples can either be fertilized with an egg and then frozen, or they can freeze on their own. Interestingly enough, the semen is actually heated before freezing to create a liquid form of the substance. The liquid is then combined with a solution that allows it to survive the freezing temperatures. The samples get stored in liquid nitrogen until needed. Survival rates of the sperm vary on a case-by-case basis; Often, experts will thaw a sample before the patient needs the sperm which helps determine its survival capabilities.
Fertility preservation will continue to support the future of many cancer patients. Developments are still in progress but there are already worthwhile techniques for your fertility.
Check back for information about fertility preservation from Dr. Mitch Rosen of USCF!