Keeping “Trak” of Your Sperm Count after Cancer Treatment

Guest author Leslie R. Schover, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist internationally recognized as an expert on sexual problems and infertility related to cancer treatment and other chronic illnesses.  Dr. Schover is the Founder at Will2Love – a digital health company offering online help for cancer-related problems with sexuality or fertility. 

SPERM COUNTS AND CANCER ARE LINKED IN MORE WAYS THAN YOU MIGHT EXPECT.

  • Men who have low sperm counts are at somewhat higher risk to develop cancer compared to men with a more normal amount of sperm.
  • Low sperm counts are typical for men who are diagnosed with various types of cancer, including Hodgkin lymphoma or testicular cancer—both more common among men in their 20s and 30s.
  • When men have a semen test to prepare for banking sperm before cancer treatment, about 10% have no sperm cells at all in their semen. A larger group have low counts and motility (sperm swimming power). However, they are still able to freeze semen for use in the future to father a child.
  • To add insult to injury, some types of cancer treatment interfere with sperm production, including chemotherapy or radiation therapy aimed at the pelvic area. In a minority of men, cancer treatment kills off all of the cells in the sperm “factory,” causing permanent infertility. While other men recover reasonably well with good sperm counts months or even years after successful cancer treatment.

MEN WHO HAVE SURVIVED CANCER TREATMENT ARE OFTEN LEFT WITH SEVERAL “SEMEN-ENIGMAS”.

  • I banked sperm, but infertility treatment can be expensive and stressful. Could my partner and I just conceive the old natural way?
  • I didn’t bank sperm. What are my chances of fathering a child, now?
  • I want to have children, but could the genes in my sperm be damaged and negatively affect the health of my child?
  • I don’t want children right now. Do I have to use birth control, or can I assume my sperm count is too low to get a partner pregnant?

If you’re facing any of the above questions, the Trak System – which tests your sperm count as Low, Moderate, or Optimal for conception at home – can provide some guidance in each situation.

KNOWING MORE ABOUT YOUR SPERM COUNT CAN HELP YOU UNDERSTAND FERTILITY AND YOUR CHANCES OF CONCEPTION AFTER CANCER TREATMENT.

  • Knowing that your current sperm count is Moderate or Optimal can give you the confidence to try for a pregnancy through intercourse. Although, if you do everything right and still have no pregnancy after 6 months, it is best to bite the bullet and see a specialist in male fertility.
  • Your chances of fathering a child will obviously be better if your count is Moderate or Optimal. However, even if your count is Low, don’t give up hope! Men’s sperm counts can take a while to recover after cancer treatment – even up to 2 to 4 years after a high dose of radiation or alkylating chemotherapy drugs (such as busulfan, carboplatin, cisplatin, cyclophosphamide, or dacarbazine just to name a few). And sperm counts can fluctuate for a lot of reasons, including other health and lifestyle factors. You can use the Trak App to learn your personal risk factors and get some tips for optimizing your sperm production over time. If you still have a Low count when you are ready to try for a pregnancy, it may be a good time to see an infertility specialist and discuss your options.
  • Cancer treatment can indeed damage the genes in a man’s sperm. Again, the alkylating chemotherapy drugs appear to do more damage. In theory, a damaged sperm could unite with an egg, but the resulting baby could have a birth defect or major health problem. Luckily, damaged sperm are often unable to successfully fertilize an egg. Over time, the new sperm a man’s body produces after cancer, also, seem to have healthier genes. Big studies of the health of children born to men who survived cancer find the risk of health problems is similar to children in healthy men. However, many oncologists recommend that a man wait 6 to 24 months after the end of chemotherapy or radiation before trying to have a child to maximize the health of his sperm.
  • Even if your count is Low, you may still be able to get a woman pregnant, so don’t count on being infertile if you want to avoid a pregnancy! Using a condom will also help avoid sexually-transmitted infections (especially if your immune system is still reeling from your cancer treatment)!

If you want to learn more about how cancer can affect men’s fertility or sex lives, as well as how to prevent or solve problems, please check out the Find Your PATHS Study.  Get up to 6 months of free access to the self-help program, Sexual Health and Fatherhood after Cancer. The study is a partnership between Will2Love.com, a digital health company, and the American Cancer Society.