Reproductive Questions and Answers for Cancer Survivors: General Information

cancer-ribbonToday, more and more girls are living healthy lives after having cancer. As a cancer survivor, you may have some special concerns about your menstrual periods, fertility, and sexual relationships. This guide was created to help answer your questions about: hormones and ovaries, premature ovarian insufficiency (POI, formerly called premature ovarian failure, or POF), fertility and pregnancy, fertility treatments, other fertility issues, and sexual relationships after cancer.

What is “normal” ovarian function?

Your ovaries are a part of your reproductive system and their normal function is to release eggs and make hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers in the body that are needed for healthy growth and development in girls and women. Estrogen and progesterone are two important hormones released by the ovaries. They are the hormones responsible for healthy bones, breast growth, and regular menstruation (periods).

What is “normal” menstruation?

Menstruation, or your period, happens once a month for most women. Some girls don’t get their period every month and that can be normal too. Your period will usually last between 2-7 days, although it may last longer for some girls. During the first year of menstruation it is common for your period to be irregular. Stress, intense physical activity, not eating well, pregnancy, and cancer treatments can all cause you to skip your period.

Will my ovaries work after receiving chemotherapy?

Both the type and amount of chemotherapy that you had could affect how well your ovaries will work. Many types have no effect on the ovaries.

During your chemotherapy, or for several months after your chemotherapy has ended, it is possible that your ovaries will temporarily stop working and then begin to work again. For others, the chemotherapy causes periods to cease permanently.

Certain types of chemotherapy can also cause some women to go through menopause early. Ask your doctor if your chemotherapy has any effect on your ovaries. This can happen even if your ovaries were okay right after the chemotherapy treatments. This means, instead of going through menopause at the average age of 52 years old, it’s possible that you may begin menopause early (premature ovarian insufficiency) in your 20’s, 30’s or 40’s. This is important for you to consider when planning a family.

Will my ovaries work after having had radiation?

It depends on what part of your body was treated and the dose. If you received radiation to a part(s) of your body that does not include your pelvis (the lower part of your abdomen, beneath the belly button) or if your ovaries were moved out of the field of radiation, it is unlikely that your ovaries were affected. (If your ovaries were exposed to the radiation that was used to treat your cancer, they may have been damaged.

How will I know if chemotherapy or radiation affected my ovaries?

Your oncologist or gynecologist should be able to tell you if your ovaries were affected by your cancer treatment(s). Your ovaries are part of your reproductive system. They make hormones and release eggs. Generally, if the chemotherapy and/or radiation you received affected your ovaries, your ovaries will stop making hormones and eggs and you will not have a period.

In some cases, ovaries may be partially affected by cancer treatment(s). Some young woman may ovulate occasionally and have light or infrequent periods because their ovaries are making small amounts of hormones and some eggs.