Cleveland Clinic Research: How Often are Breast Cancer Patients Referred to Fertility Experts?

CLEVELAND – When a young woman learns she has breast cancer, thinking about her future fertility might be the last thing on her mind.

And according to recent Cleveland Clinic research, very few women with breast cancer are referred to a fertility expert before undergoing chemotherapy.

Rebecca Flyckt, M.D., is a fertility expert at Cleveland Clinic and was an author of the study.

Dr. Flyckt and a team of researchers looked at 303 women of reproductive age who were newly diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Only about a quarter of them had an initial visit with a physician to talk about fertility preservation,” said Dr. Flyckt. “This tells us that rates of referral are still very low.”

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Dr. Flyckt said the key time to have a conversation about fertility preservation options is before cancer treatments have started, because once chemotherapy is finished, damage to the reproductive organs has already occurred.

She said the research shows the importance of starting a dialogue about fertility preservation because many of the women who had these discussions ultimately decided to take action.

“What we did find is that almost 90 percent of the women who were referred actually then pursued some kind of fertility preservation,” said Dr. Flyckt. “So once we have the discussion, the chance that someone will actually do something is pretty high.” 

Dr. Flyckt said there are a variety of effective preservation options for women including freezing eggs, freezing embryos (if they have a partner), and freezing tissue from the ovaries.

There is also an injection that can help ‘quiet’ the ovaries and protect them from the effects of chemotherapy.

The injection, known as a ‘GNRH Agonist’ causes the ovaries to go into a quiet state so that they can essentially ‘fly under the radar’ of chemotherapy, therefore helping to protect the ovaries from any damage. After the chemo is completed, they can be ‘awakened’ and hopefully return to normal fertility.

RELATED: Limit Your Infertility Risk After Breast Cancer

Dr. Flyckt said the need for fertility preservation has increased because so many women are now surviving breast cancer and have a full life ahead of them.

“Getting a cancer diagnosis is devastating, but there are many options now to preserve future fertility,” she said. “Most of these women are now surviving their cancers and getting to a stage in life where they’re thinking about growing their family and so there is a silver lining, which is that treatments have gotten very good.” 

Complete results of the study can be found in Annals of Surgical Oncology.