Center for Young Women's Health

Reproductive Q&A for Cancer Survivors:

Hormones and Ovaries


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What is "normal" ovarian function?

Your ovaries are a part of your reproductive system and their normal function is to release eggs and make hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers in the body that are needed for healthy growth and development in girls and women. Estrogen and progesterone are two important hormones released by the ovaries. They are the hormones responsible for healthy bones, breast growth, and regular menstruation.


What is "normal" menstruation?

Menstruation, or your period, happens once a month for most women. Some girls don't get their period every month, and that can be normal too. Your period will usually last between two and seven days, although it may last longer for some girls. During the first year of menstruation it is common for your period to be irregular. Stress, intense physical activity, not eating well, pregnancy, and cancer treatments can all cause you to skip your period.


Will my ovaries work after receiving chemotherapy?

Both the type and amount of chemotherapy that you had could affect how well your ovaries will work. Your ovaries may have been hurt somewhat by the chemotherapy that was used to treat your cancer even if you still have periods after the chemotherapy is over.


During your chemotherapy, or for a period of time after your chemotherapy has ended, it is possible that your ovaries will temporarily stop working, even if they have not been permanently damaged. If the effect of the chemotherapy is temporary, your ovaries will begin to work again (they will make eggs) sometime after your chemotherapy has ended.


It has also been shown that women who receive certain types of chemotherapy may go through menopause earlier than women who have never received chemotherapy. This can happen even if your ovaries were okay right after the chemotherapy treatments. This means, instead of going through menopause at the average age of 52 years old, it's possible that you may begin menopause early (premature ovarian insufficiency) in your 20's, 30's or 40's. This is important for you to consider when planning a family.


Will my ovaries work after having had radiation?

If your ovaries were exposed to the radiation that was used to treat your cancer, they may have been damaged. This is particularly true if you received radiation to your pelvis (the lower part of your abdomen, beneath the belly button). If you received radiation to your entire body, this will also affect your pelvis and ovaries. If you received radiation to other parts of your body, it is unlikely that your ovaries were affected.


If I had chemotherapy or radiation, how were my ovaries affected?

Your oncologist or gynecologist should be able to tell you if your ovaries were affected by your cancer treatment(s). Your ovaries are part of your reproductive system. They make hormones and release eggs. Generally, if the chemotherapy and/or radiation you received affected your ovaries, your ovaries will stop making hormones and eggs and you will not have a period.


In some cases, ovaries may be partially affected by cancer treatment(s). Some young woman may ovulate occasionally and have light or infrequent periods because their ovaries are making only small amounts of hormones and some eggs.


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Written and reviewed by the CYWH Staff at Boston Children's Hospital


Updated: 3/2/2010


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