Fertility preservation

For men, fertility preservation means collecting and freezing sperm. Boys who have not reached puberty can have testicular tissue frozen.

For women, fertility preservation means collecting and freezing eggs or pieces of ovary. If you have a male partner, collected eggs can sometimes be fertilised with their sperm. If embryos develop from this, these may be frozen.

Fertility preservation

If cancer treatment damages your fertility, the sperm, eggs or embryos can be used in the future with fertility treatments to help you try to have a baby. Your cancer doctor may arrange for you to talk to a specialist fertility doctor about this. They can explain what fertility preservation involves. If you decide to have fertility preservation, this is usually at a fertility clinic.

A fertility counsellor will be available to support you and your partner if you have one.

For men and boys

Storing sperm

You can store (bank) sperm at any age after puberty. This is when your body starts to change from being a child into an adult. Storing sperm usually involves masturbating (wanking) into a small container. You can do this at the fertility clinic in a private room. You might be embarrassed about doing this. The staff at the clinic will be very understanding and will try to put you at ease. 

Sometimes it may be possible to collect a sample at home and take it to the clinic. You need to keep the sample warm and take it to the fertility clinic soon after producing it. You can talk to your nurse or doctor about this.

The clinic freezes and stores your sperm.

Some people are asked to give 2 to 3 samples in a week. But if you only give one sample before cancer treatment starts, that may still be enough. Your fertility doctor or nurse will tell you how
many samples you need to give. You are usually advised not to have sex or masturbate for a couple of days before you collect each sample. This allows more sperm to be collected.

If you cannot give samples by masturbating, it may be possible to collect a small amount of sperm from the testicle.

Freezing testicular tissue

Your body only starts making sperm after puberty. If you need cancer treatment before puberty, you cannot store sperm.

Boys who have not reached puberty may have testicular cryopreservation as part of a research trial. This means collecting and freezing small samples of tissue from the testicles.

Researchers are seeing if the tissue can be used to produce sperm. They are looking at ways of doing this in the laboratory. They are also researching if the tissue can produce sperm if it is put back into the body after cancer treatment. This research is still at an early stage. It has not been used to start any pregnancies and doctors do not fully know the risks involved. Very few centres in the UK offer this.

For women and girls

Storing eggs or embryos

If your periods have started, it may be possible to store your
eggs before cancer treatment starts. This takes at least 2 weeks
and involves:

  • taking fertility drugs that make your ovaries release more eggs
  • having blood tests and ultrasounds to check the eggs in the ovaries
  • collecting the eggs.

When your eggs have been collected, you can either:

  • have the unfertilised eggs frozen and stored
  • fertilise the eggs with sperm from a male partner – if suitable embryos develop, these can then be frozen.

If a partner gives sperm to fertilise the eggs, they have equal rights in deciding what happens to the embryos in the future. This means that if they withdraw the right for you to use the embryos, you will not be able to use them. For example, this could happen if the relationship ends or they change their mind.

Freezing tissue from an ovary

This means that before cancer treatment starts, doctors remove an ovary, or small pieces of an ovary. They do this using keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery. The ovary or pieces of ovary are frozen and stored. They hold thousands of immature eggs. After cancer treatment, if you decide to try to get pregnant, the doctors can put the ovary or pieces of ovary back into your body. This can make it possible to get pregnant naturally or with IVF treatment.

This technique is suitable for:

  • women who must start cancer treatment quickly
  • women who cannot have fertility drugs
  • girls who have not started having periods.

It may not be suitable if there might be cancer cells in the ovary. This is a newer technique and it is not widely available in the UK. Only a few babies in the world have been born using this method.