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Pregnancy may be possible after chemotherapy for breast cancer patients – but many no longer wish to [ESMO 2018 Press Release]

Assessing the need for fertility preservation among breast cancer survivors
20 Oct 2018
Breast cancer;  Cancer in Special Situations / Population

MUNICH, Germany – Chemotherapy is known to have a negative impact on the reproductive potential of young breast cancer patients. Its effects on women’s post-treatment fertility, however, are still poorly understood. A study (1) to be presented at the ESMO 2018 Congress in Munich, has confirmed that natural pregnancies are possible after chemotherapy but that survivors’ desire to have children decreases greatly after treatment, calling into question the need for systematic recourse to fertility preservation measures.


Fertility preservation today is based on harvesting and freezing eggs or embryos after in vitro fertilisation. It is commonly offered to breast cancer patients under 40 during the first consultations following diagnosis. Globally, women in this age group represent less than 7% of breast cancer diagnoses, (2) and survivors have a 70% lower chance of pregnancy compared with the general population. (3) According to study author, Dr. Jérôme Martin-Babau from Centre Armoricain de Radiothérapie, Imagerie Médicale et Oncologie in Plérin, France, “the main barrier to accessing fertility preservation measures for patients in France is that it requires lab facilities and medical expertise that are only available at larger hospitals. Women may have to travel further than their usual cancer centre for the procedure.”

The French National Cancer Plan prioritises this solution as a key service to be rolled out nationwide. “We wanted to find out whether the need and demand for it among breast cancer survivors was on a par with the level of investment and organisation called for by the policymakers,” Martin-Babau continued.

In the course of the study, 96 eligible patients aged between 18 and 40 years and treated by chemotherapy for non-metastatic breast cancer were identified – 60 agreed to participate in the survey. “We based our questionnaire on existing tools found in the literature and added a dedicated section on the changes in patients’ menstrual cycles,” Martin-Babau reported.

Participants’ median age at diagnosis was 36 years, and the median time between the end of their chemotherapy and participation in the study was 57 months. In over half of cases, the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes at the time of diagnosis, which means it had a higher risk of recurrence. Triple negative tumours (4) were diagnosed in 10 women: their prognosis is worsened by the fact that they cannot receive the anti-hormonal treatment usually prescribed after chemotherapy. All patients, however, were in complete remission by the time of the survey.

The results showed that 83% of participants experienced amenorrhea – a complete absence of menstruation – during their treatment with chemotherapy. “This was an expected finding,” said Martin-Babau. “What we didn’t expect was that 86% of these patients also reported their menstrual cycle returning to normal within the following year after the end of chemo – an indication that the treatment had not completely damaged their ovaries.”

The evolution of patients’ desire to bear children over the course of the disease was also assessed: more than one third of women reported having had plans to become pregnant before beginning treatment. By contrast, only one in ten stated that they still had this wish after the end of their chemotherapy.

“Of the six patients who did still want to have children, four women actually managed to get pregnant, although two eventually miscarried,” Martin-Babau reported. The assumption that it is difficult to achieve pregnancy naturally after breast cancer was thus belied in this patient cohort.

“Of course, our study was limited to one centre and reflects the activity of just a few doctors – the reality may be quite different elsewhere. In addition, one third of patients we identified didn’t respond to the survey, possibly due to frustration with their personal situation. Their participation may have changed our results,” Martin-Babau cautioned.

Drawing conclusions from the findings, he observed: “The fact is that most forms of breast cancer are stimulated by hormones. The implantation of in vitro produced embryos requires women to take additional hormones that could potentially play a role in disease recurrence – we currently have limited data to alleviate this concern.”

“In a context, then, where it turns out that natural pregnancies are still possible after treatment, and where the actual demand for fertility preservation measures seems to be relatively low, we as clinicians need to think about how to provide the most balanced information possible during the onco-fertility counselling of these young patients,” he said.

Commenting on the study for ESMO, Dr. Matteo Lambertini, ESMO fellow at the Institut Jules Bordet in Brussels, Belgium, said: “Previous data have shown that only a small proportion of women actually choose to undergo fertility preservation measures at the time of breast cancer diagnosis. The present findings, though based on a small patient cohort, additionally tell us that breast cancer survivors’ desire to have children decreases by the time they finish treatment, while simultaneously confirming that natural pregnancies are still possible after chemotherapy. However, this does not mean that oncologists shouldn’t talk about fertility preservation measures with their patients, including in cases where their cancer centre doesn’t offer fertility services onsite: indeed, the minority of women who are interested will gladly travel to the nearest facility that does.”

“As physicians, we must continue to discuss the potential loss of ovarian function and fertility with every one of our breast cancer patients, just like we would do with any other side-effect of treatment: as early and extensively as possible,” Lambertini added. “It is important for oncologists to be aware of existing ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines on the subject (8) and to be attuned to the specific circumstances of each patient. Whilst this study reminds us that the need for fertility preservation measures should not be overestimated, we should also be careful not to exaggerate the risk of such a procedure to women when we offer them these options.”

Notes to Editors

Please make sure to use the official name of the meeting in your reports: ESMO 2018 Congress

Official Congress hashtag: #ESMO18


  1. Abstract 251P_PR ‘Pregnancies after breast cancer, is there a real need for fertility preservation? Results from the ARTEMIS cohort of 60 young patients’ will be presented by Jérôme Martin-Babau during Poster Display Session on Monday, 22 October 2018, 12:45-13:45 (CEST) in the Poster Area Networking Hub - Hall A3. Annals of Oncology, Volume 29 Supplement 8 October 2018
  2. “Epidemiology and prognosis of breast cancer in young women”, by H. A. Assi et al. Journal of Thoracic Disease. doi: 10.3978/j.issn.2072-1439.2013.05.24
  3. “Cancer, Pregnancy and Fertility: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines”, by F. A. Peccatori et al. Annals of Oncology.
  4. Triple negative breast cancer is an uncommon type of tumour whose cells do not have receptors – a kind of protein – for the hormones oestrogen and progesterone, or for a protein known as HER2. This means that it is not sensitive to hormone treatment or to drugs that target the HER2 receptor. 
  5. “Prospective study to optimize care and improve knowledge on ovarian function and/or fertility preservation in young breast cancer patients: Results of the pilot phase of the PREgnancy and FERtility (PREFER) study”, by M. Lambertini et al. The Breast. doi: 10.1016/j.breast.2018.06.012 7 “Prospective Study of Fertility Concerns and Preservation Strategies in Young Women With Breast Cancer”, by K. J. Ruddy et al. Journal of Clinical Oncology. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2013.52.8877

About the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO)

ESMO is the leading professional organisation for medical oncology. With 18,000 members representing oncology professionals from over 150 countries worldwide, ESMO is the society of reference for oncology education and information. ESMO is committed to offer the best care to people with cancer, through fostering integrated cancer care, supporting oncologists in their professional development, and advocating for sustainable cancer care worldwide. 

251P_PR Pregnancies after breast cancer, is there a real need for fertility preservation ? Results from the ARTEMIS cohort of 60 young patients

J. Martin-Babau1, F. Toudic-Emily2, A-H. Boivin3, P. Burban-Provost2, B. Vie2, P-L. Etienne1, B. Lamezec2, E. Le Fur2, A. Vincent3, D. Besson1, A-C. Hardy-Bessard1
1Medical Oncology, Centre Armoricain de Radiothérapie Imagerie Medicale et Oncologie, Plerin, France, 2Radiotherapy, Centre Armoricain de Radiothérapie Imagerie Medicale et Oncologie, Plerin, France, 3Bureau de Recherche Clinique des Cotes d'Armor - BEC22, Hopital Prive des Cotes d'Armor, Plerin, France

Background: One of the main problems affecting young women after adjuvant chemotherapy for early breast cancer is the desire for children and the impact of the treatment on this desire and on pregnancy. Many works are ongoing on fertility preservation but what is the real need? Hence a survey to evaluate these issues in young breast cancer survivors was put in place.

Methods: Patients aged between 18 and 40 years old treated by chemotherapy for non-metastatic breast cancer between 2005 and 2017 were retrospectively asked to respond to this survey, after having signed a consent form.

Results: 96 patients were identified, from which 60 agreed and responded to the survey. This high response rate demonstrates the importance of these themes for patients. Median age at diagnosis was 36 years old (34-40). Median time between the end of chemo-/radiotherapy and inclusion was of 57 months. 34 patients had node involvement at diagnosis, 10 patients had triple negative tumors. Adjuvant endocrine therapy was prescribed in 70% of patients from whom 54% were still under treatment at inclusion. Tamoxifen was prescribed in 90% of the cases and complete ovarian suppression for 9.5% of the patients. The mean treatment time was 5 years. The survey showed that anticancer treatments had a major impact on patients: Chemotherapy-induced amenorrhea was experienced by 83% of the patients but 86% recovered normal cycles in the following months. Diagnosis and treatment affected the patients desire for pregnancy: indeed, before diagnosis, 31% were hoping to become pregnant; this desire fell to 10% after treatment. However, of these 6 patients: 2 patients became pregnant and 2 miscarried. Patient’s relationships were affected as 20% declared a change of partner directly or indirectly related to the treatment. Sexual quality-of-life was impacted in 61% of patients with long-term side effects.

Conclusions: Treatment of breast cancer impacts strongly the quality of life of young breast cancer survivors. However, definitive amenorrhea related to chemotherapy in these patients occurred in a minority of them and the number of pregnancies reported after treatment is higher than expected if we take into account the desire of pregnancy after treatment.

Clinical trial identification: NCT03470935.

Legal entity responsible for the study: Dr Jérôme Martin-Babau.

Funding: Has not received any funding.

Disclosure: All authors have declared no conflicts of interest.

Last update: 20 Oct 2018

This press release contains information provided by the authors of the highlighted abstracts and reflects the content of those abstracts. It does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of ESMO who cannot be held responsible for the accuracy of the data. Commentators quoted in the press release are required to comply with the ESMO Declaration of Interests policy and the ESMO Code of Conduct.

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