Effects on fertility
Early cancer of the vulva is usually managed solely by surgery and therefore has no impact on a woman’s chance of conceiving.
If chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy are required, this may affect fertility in some circumstances. If you are premenopausal and feel concerned about how these treatments will affect your fertility, talk to your doctor.
Radiotherapy can make sexual intercourse uncomfortable or difficult for a time. As well, many women experience body-image concerns after surgery, which may lead to having sexual intercourse less frequently. This is a major determinant of the chance of conceiving naturally; hence, some women will seek fertility assistance.
At this time of anxiety and concern, it is essential that you receive concise and up-to-date information from a recognised fertility expert. You should be referred to a respected unit for this advice. The Reproductive Technology Accreditation Committee, under the Fertility Society of Australia, administers a national code of practice and a system for the accreditation of assisted reproductive technology clinics. For a list of accredited clinics in Australia and New Zealand, see the website of the Fertility Society of Australia.
Chemotherapy or full pelvic radiotherapy may affect the number of eggs left within the ovary and, in many cases, accelerate the normal age-related decline in egg numbers.
In some cases, this may lead to an early menopause, and hence the need to use another woman’s eggs (egg donation treatment) to become pregnant. Hormone replacement therapy can help with managing the symptoms of early menopause.
A surgical procedure called ovarian transposition, which lifts the ovaries as far from the source of the radiation as possible, can reduce the harmful effects of the radiation on the ovaries.
You can talk to a fertility specialist about your options to limit harm to your ovaries from chemotherapy. These may include the following.
An implant containing a drug called a GnRH analogue may be used to suppress the function of the ovaries for the duration of chemotherapy. There is some evidence that this may limit the harm to the ovaries for women embarking on chemotherapy only.
Ovarian tissue freezing
One potential way to save some eggs for the future is to take a small slice of ovarian tissue. This is done in a minor operation before starting chemotherapy, or at the time of ovarian transposition surgery before starting radiotherapy.
The major downside to this technique is that it is still experimental – very few babies have been born from this treatment. Furthermore, it involves undergoing an operation, and then further surgery to reimplant the ovarian tissue. Evidence suggests that many women do not want the ovarian tissue replaced because of their fear of reintroducing tissue that may still contain cancer cells.
Freezing of eggs
If you are not in a stable relationship, you may opt to go through an IVF cycle. This takes up to 1 month before starting chemotherapy or radiotherapy. It involves daily injections to stimulate the ovaries and then, after a couple of weeks, a minor surgical procedure to have the eggs collected. These eggs are rapidly frozen until they are needed. However, this technique should still be considered developmental, and success so far is limited.
If you are in a stable relationship and time permits, you may opt to go through an IVF cycle (described above), but in this case your eggs are fertilised with your partner’s sperm and the resulting embryos are frozen until they are used. The freezing of embryos is a more successful procedure than the freezing of eggs.
‘Wait and see’ policy
Many women find these choices are too hard to make at this time of great anxiety. It may help to talk to the fertility counsellor who is always attached to an IVF unit.