Only one in 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer are being offered the chance to have fertility treatment, despite the disease leaving them potentially unable to have children, a study has found.
According to Breast Cancer Care, 88% of women under 45 were not referred to a fertility clinic to discuss the possibility of freezing eggs or embryos ahead of cancer treatment.
The charity said this is leaving an estimated 5,000 younger breast cancer patients across the UK missing out on fertility care, despite cancer treatment potentially leaving them unable to have children in future.
Researchers also questioned breast cancer oncologists, surgeons and nurses and found that 35% are not telling younger breast cancer patients at diagnosis how treatment could affect their fertility, leaving them completely unaware of the risks.
Samia al Qadhi, Breast Cancer Care chief executive, said: " Our research shows that too many younger breast cancer patients are being denied the chance to preserve their fertility before they start cancer treatment. There are two clear reasons for this: many healthcare professionals are not discussing fertility options and clear referral systems are not in place.
"This is an unacceptable situation as breast cancer is a disease which robs many women of a chance to start a family. We urgently need all healthcare professionals to talk to women about their fertility options at the point of diagnosis."
Cancer patient Catherine Coombe, 45, from Cwmbran in South Wales, said she found it difficult to move forward with her life after discovering she could no longer conceive.
She said: "I was diagnosed five years ago when I was 39. I was single and wasn't offered the opportunity to speak to a specialist about preserving my fertility.
"Despite having a nursing background, I didn't fully realise the damaging impact treatment would have on my fertility. This was never addressed. At such an overwhelming time I just didn't think, I was only focused on getting the cancer out and getting better.
"It was only much later I realised the option of having my own children was gone and that has made moving forward from my diagnosis so much harder. Just having the opportunity to discuss options with the right people would have been invaluable in helping me."
Breast Cancer Care also found that 60% of women are unaware that infertility is a real possibility when a woman goes through chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer.
Grete Brauten-Smith, the charity's clinical nurse specialist for younger women with breast cancer, said: "Some cancer treatments can cause infertility. A fertility specialist will be able to talk breast cancer patients through their choices before starting treatment and see if freezing their eggs or embryos is a viable option for them.
"The worry is that the results of our research are reflective of practice UK-wide. A consultation with a fertility expert might not mean a guaranteed pregnancy but we must ensure women have the chance of considering their options. Only then can they make an empowered decision about their future fertility."
Researchers spoke to 176 women aged under 45 and diagnosed with breast cancer.
:: For more information visit www.breastcancercare.org.uk