Fertility preservation offers couples or individuals the opportunity to preserve their ability to have children in the future by freezing their eggs or sperm. It is especially helpful to patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation, but it’s also attractive to younger people who aren’t yet ready to start a family but wish to do so at a later date. While men have been able to preserve their fertility for decades by freezing their sperm, only recently have women benefitted from successful egg freezing thanks to an improved freezing technique.
Preserving Options for Cancer Patients
When a cancer diagnosis is given, the patient experiences a wide range of emotions. Often, the thought of future reproduction never comes to mind. However, despite the stress of a cancer diagnosis, the topic should be discussed as soon as possible since early intervention is critical for successful fertility preservation.
Chemotherapy, radiation and even some cancer surgeries can reduce fertility in men and women. The degree of potential infertility depends on such factors as the patient’s age, type of cancer, chemotherapy drugs and doses used, and the location and dose of radiation. For example:
- High doses of radiation to a woman’s abdomen or pelvis can reach the ovaries, destroying all their eggs and causing early menopause.
- In men, the dose of chemotherapy may affect how quickly sperm production returns to normal, if at all.
These are just a few examples. Fertility preservation options will differ from patient to patient. We are happy to work with you and your cancer treatment team to optimize your post-treatment fertility. We recognize the importance of time and will accelerate our normal scheduling to meet with you within 48 hours of your first call to our office.
Female cancer patients wishing to preserve their fertility via egg freezing must be post pubertal and if under the age of 18, must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Delaying Parenthood via Egg Freezing
Egg freezing can be of great potential benefit to healthy women who wish to preserve their fertility until a later age when they are ready to start their family. They will then be using eggs that may be many years younger than their chronological age. This is important considering that a woman’s fertility reduces as her age increases. By the age of 40, a woman’s ability to become spontaneously pregnant per cycle decreases to only 8 to 10 percent.
Typical egg freezing candidates wishing to preserve fertility for postponed parenthood are healthy women over the age of 21 and up to age 37. Women over the age of 37 are evaluated on an individual basis and treated based on established protocol.
Egg Cryopreservation (Freezing)
The purpose of egg cryopreservation (preservation of tissue or cells via freezing) is to preserve a woman’s ability to become pregnant using her own eggs. Previously, women wishing to preserve their fertility could pursue embryo cryopreservation; however, this option didn’t meet the needs of single women or those with religious concerns. Others chose more experimental options such as ovarian tissue freezing.
Today, using a new freezing technique, vitrification, that our Reproductive Studies Lab has mastered, we can freeze and then thaw viable eggs for later use. Only a competent, high complexity lab has the experience needed for this specialized technology. The Bethesda Fertility Center was the first in the Tristate to achieve pregnancy and birth using frozen eggs.
Vitrification, or “flash freezing,” provides higher egg survival and pregnancy rates than the traditional slow-freezing method. During vitrification, eggs are frozen before ice crystals, which ruin a cell’s structure, can form. A high concentration of an initial cryoprotectant is used and then the egg is quickly frozen in liquid nitrogen. An extremely rapid rate of thawing is used once again to prevent ice crystal damage to the egg.
Egg freezing is done in conjunction with in vitro fertilization (IVF). The ovaries are stimulated with medication, and eggs are retrieved and frozen. This retrieval procedure is performed in our state-of-the-art surgical suite, and the eggs remain in storage for an indefinite amount of time. Once a woman is ready for pregnancy, her eggs are thawed and fertilized with the husband’s or partner’s sperm. The fertilized eggs, now embryos, are then transferred to the woman’s uterus.
Please see our storage policy for more information.
Sperm Cryopreservation (Freezing)
One of the most common ways to preserve male fertility is through sperm cryopreservation (preservation of tissue or cells via freezing). This is achieved by adding a cryoprotectant to the liquefied semen sample and then storing it in liquid nitrogen. Samples can be frozen indefinitely when kept at a temperature of -196°C. Once a man is ready for parenthood, his sperm are thawed and combined with his wife’s or partner’s egg for fertilization either via intrauterine insemination or in vitro fertilization.
For men who did not freeze sperm before cancer treatment and are experiencing low sperm count issues, we offer a variety of male infertility treatment options that may boost fertility.
Please see our storage policy for more information.