Health

Egg freezing: by women who’ve been there, or decided not to

November 23rd 2017 / Anna Hunter / 0 comment

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Rita Ora revealed that she froze her eggs in her early 20s, but how does it feel to embark on the egg freezing process, and what are the physical, financial and emotional costs? Two women told us their experiences

It’s been a fertility preservation option for many women prior to cancer treatment for a long while, but social egg freezing is fast on the rise. Data from the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) indicates that the number of women freezing their eggs has tripled over a period of five years, and while just 60 babies have been born as a result of egg freezing thus far, putting our eggs on ice is predicted to become an increasingly popular way to give us a chance at motherhood when we’re in the position to start a family.

Technically known as vitrification, egg freezing involves the stimulation of the ovaries with certain medications in order to produce a surplus of eggs, which are then collected in a procedure during which a needle is inserted into the vagina. Eggs are then frozen in liquid nitrogen, and they can be legally stored for up to ten years in the UK (this can be extended to 55 years in some cases). Once an egg is thawed, it can be fertilised by way of IVF, with the resulting embryo implanted into the womb.

So far, so seemingly straightforward, and with the likes of egg-freezing “parties” in the US, whereby private fertility clinics host champagne and canapé evenings to introduce women to the option of egg freezing, not to mention the much publicised employee egg-freezing “perks” offered by companies such as Google and Facebook, you might think that it was a handy bolt-on for women wishing to extend their fertility and plan for future motherhood while taking the edge off a ticking biological clock.

The reality, of course, isn’t always so simple. For starters, it’s not a given that it will work, and the expense involved means that egg-freezing is far from accessible for many women. Success rates are predicted to be lower than IVF, but with so many eggs yet to thaw, we can’t yet know for sure whether egg freezing constitutes a technological fertility revolution for women, or a shot at motherhood that’s more likely to end in disappointment. We spoke to two women about their real-life experiences of egg-freezing, from initial tests and clinic appointments to deciding whether it was indeed the right option for them…

Emma, 36, is a personal image consultant and marketing expert. She had 16 eggs frozen two years ago, and is currently single.

“I’d just come out of a four year relationship at the age of 31. It was the kind of relationship that everyone, including myself to be honest, had assumed would progress to marriage, kids and so on, but it wasn’t to be. We’re still great friends actually, but it just wasn’t right. When the relationship ended, my mum mentioned that I might want to look into egg freezing. It wasn’t until I ended a later relationship of 18 months (he was most definitely not the man for me) that I actually considered taking the plunge. I was 34, and after a long discussion with my mum, dad and sister, I put the feelers out.

It was a colleague at work who had recently frozen her eggs that put me in touch with my brilliant gynaecologist, Mr Colin Davis. During my first appointment at his clinic the whole process was explained with clarity and impartiality. I reached out to other women who’d done it, and decided that while it was undoubtedly a hugely expensive process, I would treat it as a worthwhile insurance policy. Rather than the much documented career related reasons for embarking on egg freezing, the factor that most affected my decision was the way that my relationships had played out, and the fact that I didn’t want to rush finding the right partner, or settle in a bad relationship. I’ve seen friends start families in less than happy relationships, and I wasn’t prepared to go down that path.

As for the process, I can’t deny that it was a little weird injecting myself in the stomach everyday, and having a sharps bin in my bathroom took a bit of getting used to. The appointments were more disruptive than I’d anticipated too- I had to go along to the clinic almost everyday before work prior to having my eggs harvested in order to look at my eggs via ultrasound. I won’t beat around the bush- it’s quite the wake-up call to have a “prong” inserted every day before trotting off to the office, but it wasn’t a painful process- just a bit uncomfortable. As for the egg harvesting procedure itself, it took about 15 minutes. I was heavily sedated throughout, and the recovery period was quick- I only took one day off work. My boss was incredibly flexible and understanding.

I think that in time it will become normalised and women will start looking into it at a younger age.

I’ve frozen 16 eggs, and In total it’s cost me £7000. I’m lucky to be in the financial position to be able to afford it, but given that I could have easily frittered the cash away on a luxury holiday, handbag or a car, I see it as a valuable investment in my future. The best case scenario is that I won’t need the eggs I’ve frozen, but I have them stored until I’m at least 44, and I can extend it after that if I wish.

I did consider egg donation initially alongside freezing, but I decided against it in the end. You can never be sure of individual egg quality, and if I gave eggs away yet didn’t have any children myself that would be a difficult emotional position to be in. You have to decide whether you want to donate before your eggs are retrieved, and if you’re not successful yourself, it’s a lot to put your mind and body through. 16 eggs might seem like as lot, but there are no guarantees, even though technology is improving all the time. I’ve decided to give any eggs that aren’t used to medical research when the time comes.

I know that the ‘live birth stats’ look bleak, but the general reporting on egg-freezing in the media really frustrates me- it’s a new option for women and couples, and there aren’t the stats to accurately reflect how it’s working yet. You can’t take the numbers at face value at the moment, as currently all the eggs are in the freezer, so to speak! I think that in time it will become normalised and women will start looking into it at a younger age.

I’m happy that I went for it at 34 when I was still in a peak period of my fertility- success rates are likely to be better the younger you are, and I think that it can give many women peace of mind, while most would hope they’d conceive naturally and not need to use them. It’s such a personal decision, and I was very lucky to have the means and incredible support from family and friends to see it through. I’m very open about my experience and decision, and I’ll chat to any woman who’s thinking about it who wants to talk to someone who’s been there. I absolutely don’t agree with the idea of putting pressure on women to freeze their eggs, but it’s another modern choice that’s opened up to us, and I think it’s important that it’s not a taboo topic.”

Jenny, 29, is an editor at a major publishing house. A conversation with a friend prompted her to discuss egg freezing with her partner, and they made subsequent appointments as a couple to discover if it was for them.

“I’m in a very happy relationship of three years. Although I live with my boyfriend, we’re not married yet and we’re definitely not ready to swap our carefree life of zero responsibilities (minus making it to work every day) for a life of parenthood for at least four or five more years.

Saying that, I definitely want a family when the time is right, and I could never imagine myself not having kids. So, when my best friend told me over a bottle of prosecco that she’d spoken to a fertility expert who had told her she should be seriously considering freezing her eggs at 29, I felt nervous. Did that mean I should be considering freezing my eggs too?

After talking it through with my boyfriend, I booked in to a London egg clinic to see what it was all about. I knew it was expensive, so I chose the first clinic based on the fact that it offered egg donation programmes - this means you can freeze your eggs for free, but only if you also donate some of them to other women who can’t conceive.

Before they could find out if I was eligible for egg donation, I had to go through a full medical history and have two tests done - a pelvic ultrasound which counts how many follicles you have to figure out your ovarian reserve (this doesn’t hurt, but isn’t particularly comfortable either) and a blood test to measure your AMH (Anti-Mullerian Hormone) level.

You have to score very highly on each test to be eligible for egg donation, and upon receiving my results I was told I wasn’t eligible - my results weren’t bad by any means, but they weren’t in the ‘excellent’ category that qualifies you for that particular programme. By that point though, I had already decided that egg donation wasn’t for me after finding out that a recent change in the law means that any child born from your donated eggs has the right to contact you once they turn 18 - something I wasn’t sure I could handle.

Moving on from my egg donation ideas, my boyfriend and I then took a trip to another London egg clinic that claimed to have the highest success rates for egg freezing in the UK. After sitting in on one of their open days, I was then granted a free 15-minute consultancy session with one of their fertility doctors who explained how the process of egg freezing works in a nutshell. Intrigued to find out more, I then booked in for a full one-hour appointment (which costed a hefty £200) with another doctor, who promised to explain the process in detail.

While the doctor was lovely and answered all of my questions, I left feeling spooked after his warnings of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (when the drugs you inject cause your ovaries to go into overdrive, resulting sometimes in hospitalisation), extreme bloating, vomiting, infection - all possible risks and side effects of the egg freezing process. Pair that with his reluctant confession that it’s not uncommon for women to go through the entire procedure only to wake up and discover that none of her eggs were viable for freezing (that’s your savings down the drain then), and I wasn’t feeling as enthused about the whole thing. The £7k pricing breakdown I was then handed by the finance team as I left was the final nail in the coffin. I went home feeling deflated, but with my mind made up - egg freezing was probably not for me.

If it doesn’t happen naturally? I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, knowing that there are tonnes of different ways to have a family these days

A few weeks later, I was seeing my GP to get back onto my usual contraception (before having any of your fertility tests, you have to have been off your pill for at least three months for it to be accurate). I decided to ask him what he thought about egg freezing, after telling him my story - his advice? Leave it to nature. Yes, women’s fertility starts to decline after 30, he said, but only gradually (after 35 is when it starts to decline steeply). And while he didn’t explicitly state that he’s against them, he did gently remind me that egg freezing clinics are, at the end of the day, there to make money. His advice was to just be sensible, and to think carefully about what I want for my future - if kids are definitely on the cards, I should make sure I’m striking the right balance between ‘enjoying my early 30s’ and choosing a time to conceive. He also reminded me that women should allow themselves at least a year to get pregnant for the first time, so if I think I might want a baby at 34/35, I should be thinking about coming off the Pill at 33. And if it doesn’t happen naturally? Well, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, knowing that there are tonnes of different ways to have a family these days. And that’s a decision I’m happy with.”

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