What are infertility and sterility?

Infertility (IN-fur-TILL-ih-tee) is reduced or lost ability to conceive and carry a baby, either for a short time or forever. Sterility (stuh-RILL-ih-tee) means you can never conceive and carry a child. Infertility and sterility do not change your ability or desire to have sex.

Why would I have problems with infertility and sterility?

Chemotherapy and pelvic radiation can lower the number of ovum (or eggs), decrease their ability to grow after fertilization, damage chromosomes, or cause other changes. Surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy can harm the ovaries, destroying their ability to make new eggs or reducing the amount of estrogen and progesterone made. These hormones control female sex drive, arousal, and the menstrual cycle. Some women stop having menstrual periods, have irregular periods, or have menopause-like symptoms during cancer treatment.

Other factors related to cancer may cause or worsen infertility and sterility, including:

  • Stress or anxiety
  • Fatigue or tiredness
  • Hormonal changes from the cancer itself
  • Medications -- some chemotherapy drugs (busulfan, chlorambucil, cyclophosphamide, estramustine, mechlorethamine, melphalan), hormonal therapy (anastrozole, tamoxifen, toremifene)

When should I call my doctor?

Call your doctor whenever you are worried about infertility. Call your doctor if you have questions about your medical care.

Call the doctor as soon as you can if you have:

  • Irregular or missed menstrual periods
  • Increased or decreased menstrual bleeding
  • Any unusual bleeding after sex

What should I do about infertility?

Ask about infertility and sterility before you start treatment. Some women bank, or freeze, eggs for the future. Then, they can possibly have children later if therapy makes them sterile.

Talk with your partner about having children. Share your feelings and concerns.

Use effective birth control during cancer treatment, like condoms or contraceptive gel. Oral contraceptives ("the Pill") may not work as well. Some chemotherapy drugs can damage chromosomes. This could cause birth defects if a child is conceived during therapy. Ask your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist when you can stop using birth control for this reason.

These patient information materials should be used in conjunction with verbal counseling. They are not intended as the sole source of information patients receive about managing cancer therapy complications.

From the Cancer Chemotherapy Manual, © 2001, University of Utah Hospitals and Clinics, Salt Lake City, UT. Published by Facts and Comparisons, St Louis, MO,