Approximately 740,000 women are diagnosed with cancer every year in the United States, and because of improved screening, diagnosis, and treatment, women of reproductive age have an 80%-90% 5-year survival rate. The most common cancers in reproductive age women include breast, thyroid, melanoma, colorectal, and cervical cancers. Fertility intention is a critical topic to discuss with reproductive-age cancer patients. Women with cancer often have unmet contraception needs during and following cancer treatment. Providing women with a desired, effective form of contraception that is appropriate with regard to the cancer is critical.
Multiple studies have demonstrated that pregnancy prevention is not adequately addressed in cancer patients. On the one hand, many patients believe they are no longer fertile because of a combination of the illness and the cancer treatment, and on the other hand, many providers may not be adequately trained to offer their patients the full range of contraceptive options ( Am. J. Obstet. Gynecol. 2009;201:191.e1-4 ). One study demonstrated that discussions around fecundity and contraception are occurring about 50% of the time ( J. Natl. Cancer. Inst. Monogr. 2005:98-100 ).
In response, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine has issued guidelines regarding fertility planning in cancer patients ( Fertil. Steril. 2005;83:1622-8 ). While every patient’s circumstance is unique, recommendations are for patients to avoid pregnancy for at least 1 year beyond the completion of medical and surgical treatment of cancer. For those cancers that are hormone mediated, recommendations are to wait 2-5 years before attempting to conceive ( J. Obstet. Gynaecol. Can. 2002;24:164-80; J. Gen. Intern. Med. 2009; 24: S401-6 ).
Unless patients are educated about and offered the most effective forms of contraception, they are at risk of unintended pregnancy, which may result in severe consequences, as patients may be on teratogenic medications or dealing with comorbid conditions originating from cancer and cancer treatment ( Contraception 2012;86:191-8 ).
Cancer treatments have variable impact on subsequent fertility (with the obvious exception of surgical removal of gynecologic organs resulting in sterilization). With all nonsurgical cancer treatments, the potential for subsequent fertility depends on the chemotherapeutic agents, the duration of treatment, or use of pelvic radiation. As in patients without cancer, age is inversely related to subsequent fertility. Reviews of the literature have shown that fecundability decreases by 10%-50% post chemotherapy.
Clinicians caring for these women may find it challenging to assess future fertility. Some chemotherapies induce amenorrhea, but spontaneous return of menstruation and ovarian function is possible in younger women. Traditional diagnostic tests to assess fertility, including serum FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) and/or AMH (anti-Müllerian hormone), may help in predicting future fertility. These tests can be used both in patients who desire to pursue pregnancy and in those desiring to avoid pregnancy as menstrual status may not accurately predict fertility.
Contraception counseling should begin by informing women of the most effective forms of contraception ( Obstet. Gynecol. 2011;118:184-96 ). It is important to consider the option of sterilization, especially when this desire predated the cancer diagnosis. In patients who are in a monogamous relationship with a male partner, vasectomy should be encouraged as a safe and effective alternative. When a woman is considering sterilization, she needs to be counseled as to the risk of regret, which is higher in younger women. Sterilization should not be performed if the consent or decision-making process is rushed by the cancer treatment.
As cancer screening, diagnosis, and treatment continue to improve, more reproductive-age women will be living longer with a need for effective contraception. In the next edition of Gynecologic Oncology Consult, I will review the safety and efficacy of specific contraceptive methods in patients with cancer.
Dr. Zerden is a family planning fellow in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research interests include postpartum contraception, methods of female sterilization, and family planning health services integration. He reported having no financial disclosures. E-mail Dr. Zerden at firstname.lastname@example.org .