Fertility and radiation

PDF download is not available for Arabic and Urdu languages at this time. Please use the browser print function instead

Radiation can affect fertility for both males and females. Learn how it can affect fertility and what your options are for preserving fertility.

Key points

  • Fertility is the ability to conceive and have a baby.
  • Fertility can be affected by radiation to the abdomen and pelvic area, to the brain and by total body irradiation.
  • You may not know if your fertility has been affected until some time after treatment is finished, but you should use contraception to avoid pregnancy.
  • It is important to talk to your health-care team about options for preserving fertility and about any feelings you may have about your fertility.

In some cases, radiation therapy may affect your fertility (the ability to conceive and have a baby). This is true for males and females.

How radiation affects your fertility depends on:

  • the dose (amount) of radiation you receive
  • the number of treatments you have
  • the part of your body that is treated with radiation
  • other treatments you may be having at the same time

How does radiation affect fertility?

Radiation works to treat cancer because it damages the cancer cells and causes them to die. Radiation to certain parts of your body can cause damage to the healthy cells in your reproductive organs. This can lead to problems with fertility. Your health-care team will talk to you and your parent/caregiver about how your treatment might affect your fertility.

Each person responds to treatment differently. It is really hard to predict exactly how your fertility may be affected by radiation therapy.

  • Abdominal and pelvic radiation: Reproductive organs are located in the lower part of the abdomen (belly) and in the pelvic area (between the hip bones).
    • For girls: Radiation to your abdomen or pelvic area can affect the ovaries (where the eggs come from), the uterus (womb), or the cervix (at the bottom of the uterus). If these organs are damaged it may be difficult or impossible to get pregnant or to have a healthy pregnancy.
    • For boys: Radiation to the abdomen or pelvic area can affect whether your testes can make sperm. It may also cause changes that make it difficult or impossible to have an erection.
  • Radiation to the brain: Part of your brain, called the pituitary gland, produces hormones (chemicals) that control your reproductive organs. Damage to this gland can lead to problems with fertility. You may be able to take medications to keep your hormones balanced and prevent problems with fertility.
  • Total body irradiation: This is radiation to your whole body. It is usually given with chemotherapy before a bone marrow transplant.

How will I know if my fertility is affected?

It usually takes some time after treatment is finished to tell whether your fertility has been affected and whether the changes are permanent or not. Your doctor may refer you to a fertility specialist to help sort this out.

For a while after treatment it’s especially important to use contraception like a condom or another form of birth control if you’re having sex. This is to avoid getting pregnant, as radiation therapy can harm a developing baby. For more information about sexuality and cancer treatment, check out the page Sexuality and cancer (ages 12 and 13) or Sexuality and cancer (ages 14 and up).

What are my options?

There may be options available for preserving fertility. Males may have the option of sperm banking (preserving and storing sperm in a special facility for use in fertility treatments later in life). Your health-care team will be able to discuss any available options with you.

For some teens, the possibility that treatment could affect their fertility can be really upsetting. For others, it might not be such a major concern at this time, especially with so much else going on. How you feel likely depends on your future goals, the influence of your family, your religion or beliefs and who you are as a person. How you feel about having a baby might also change as you get older.

Whichever way you feel right now, it’s important that you and your parent/caregiver understand the possible effects of treatment on your fertility. Talk to your health-care team. They can give you information and also be a source of support if you're dealing with difficult feelings. Of course, this can be a really challenging subject to talk about. In the section on communication, you will learn tips to help you communicate about things, such as fertility, that are important to you but are tough to talk about.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019