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Sperm Banking: Keeping Fatherhood as an Option
Receiving the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness is a traumatic and life-changing event that sets into motion the process of having to make a tremendous number of decisions in a very short time. Many complex issues arise that often involve future planning not previously anticipated.
Current cancer treatments can result in temporary or permanent infertility. Cancer itself, like any systemic illness, frequently results in arrested or severely diminished sperm production, yet for a man facing cancer treatment, the issue of possible infertility due to chemotherapy, radiation or surgery understandably may not be at the top of the list of his concerns. He may be single, may already have children, or may have never considered fatherhood before.
It's not uncommon for a man to consider, reconsider, or change his mind about wanting children later in life. Planning for that possibility may be an item some will want to take into account before starting treatment. In such cases, (presuming a man has time to do this before his treatment must begin), starting to make sperm deposits as soon as possible will increase a man's chances that he has an adequate supply of sperm to achieve a pregnancy. (Studies show that it takes an average of 6 to 8 months for a woman to conceive through artificial insemination with frozen sperm.)
Although many factors influence if and when a woman will conceive, including her age, the condition of her reproductive system, the method of fertilization, and whether fertility drugs are used, it is generally accepted that it takes from 10 to 25 million motile sperm for conception to occur through insemination. Normally, men produce from 20 to 200 million motile sperm per 1 cc (cubic centimeter) with each ejaculation, but illness, stress and other factors often cause a much lower sperm count and/or motility, often as low as only 1 million or less.
Under ideal circumstances, a man would make about 6 sperm deposits for each child he might want to have. This is often not possible if the issue of possible infertility resulting from cancer treatments is not brought up by the physician early on. For this reason, we recommend that a man begin to bank his sperm as soon as possible after learning that he has cancer. A few days after a man makes an initial deposit of sperm, which is then frozen, a small fraction of this specimen is thawed and examined in order to determine the number of surviving sperm and the quality of their motility. This information is used to help the man decide if the number of deposits initially planned needs to be adjusted.
From the first successful sperm freezing in the 1950's, researchers have achieved techniques that allow sperm to be cryopreserved (frozen with liquid nitrogen at -195 degrees) for up to several years.
There are hundreds of sperm banks today in the United States. An internet search under Sperm Banks with the name of the state the patient lives in should yield a list of sperm banks to choose from.
I continue to urge physicians to encourage men to bank their sperm for possible future use as far in advance of cancer treatment as possible- the best way to ensure that fatherhood remains an option.
Sherron Mills is the CEO of Pacific Reproductive Services, which she founded in 1984. She holds a degree in nursing from Georgia State University and Grady Memorial Hospital and received her Nurse Practitioner Certificate from the University of California, San Francisco. As a member of the National Association of Tissue Banks and The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, Sherron is a noted expert in the insemination field. December 4, 2003
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