With Google and Facebook offering employees egg freezing as a company benefit, a new generation of women may have access to progressive policies that could enable them to achieve their work and family goals, without having to keep an eye on their biological clock, or make sacrifices. With vitrification going mainstream, could this be the fertility game-changer we have been waiting for? Here four women share their stories.
‘I froze my eggs for peace of mind’ Luanne Slingerland, 41
‘It hit me that my chance of motherhood could become jeopardised when I had to make a choice to destroy my eggs or not. When you sign the documents to have your eggs harvested you are given a form to fill in that asks, in the event of your death, whether you would like them destroyed, donated to a couple or given to science. That’s quite a tough call for a mom-to-be – especially when I haven’t even decided if I want children or not. I know logically I want them, and I’d love to give my mom a grandchild, but I’ve never had that baby hunger that my friends around me have had. ‘It was only when many women my age started sharing with me that they were having trouble falling pregnant that I began to think about my own fertility. When I did the math, it didn’t look promising. I was 36; that meant that even if I met the man of my dreams within the year, and eventually wanted to have two kids, I’d be pregnant in my early 40s for the second one.
‘I pitched the idea of freezing my eggs to friends and family, and they kindly didn’t raise any eyebrows – in fact, everyone I’ve told has been totally supportive. The doctor explained that the chances of a successful procedure would be higher if I’d fertilised my eggs with a sperm donor, but if I meet someone I want to start a family with I want it to be their child. I’m sitting on the fence about having kids anyway, so I want to do it my way, or no way at all. I don’t want to be a single mom, so going that route is not an option for me.
‘I met with my fertility doctor. He asked me about my lifestyle and why I was considering freezing my eggs, as well as explained the tests they needed to do first. He examined my ovaries via ultrasound to see if he could see “eggs”. Then I had blood tests to check if my eggs were appropriate to harvest – which if they aren’t, doctors advise against continuing the process. Within five days, I had the results and it was all systems go. I was introduced to a nurse who explained at what point in my cycle I needed to start the daily injections, and she showed me how to administer them. It was easier and less intimidating than I expected, as all I needed to do was use a device that looked like a pen with a needle that was about 1cm long. ‘After a few days of injecting I went back for another examination so the doctor could see if I was responding to the hormones, and if he would need to adjust the dosage. I was lucky – my body was responding really well. I was given another injection to prevent the eggs from releasing prematurely.
‘A few days later, I returned to the doctor and was told my eggs would be ready to harvest in three days. On the Friday night before that, during load-shedding, and by the glow of my solar-powered LED lights kept from my latest AfrikaBurn trip, I administered my last injection, which ensured the eggs would be mature enough to harvest. I’ve heard horror stories from other women about how difficult they found the process, physically and emotionally, but for me it’s only been empowering. I had absolutely no side effects, not even a bruise. The only day I can say I felt any pain was the morning my eggs were harvested; it felt like I was extremely bloated, similar to what you experience during PMS, and it was because I had all these extra eggs that were “ready to go”. The doctor was hoping to harvest eight eggs, but I responded so well to the hormones that 25 of them were successful, 24 of which are now frozen. ‘I still don’t know if I want kids, but it’s a powerful feeling to know that I no longer have society or biology dictating when and if I have a child. And it’s taken the pressure off dating too. I have been dating someone for about eight months now and I have told him my eggs are on ice. It is a relief for the both of us that we don’t feel the need to rush things in order for me to be able to have a baby. ‘I had started a new job the year before I froze my eggs and it allowed me to focus on my work and enjoy it more. I’m studying part time and learning new skills; I am investing in my career and myself. Isn’t that the best thing to do when you’re planning a family? ‘I’ve given myself a deadline; by 45 I must use my eggs. But that could change, depending where I am in my career or life stage. I’m in no rush. But when I drive past the clinic with my mom, I tell her to wave to her grandchildren.’
‘I froze my eggs so I could start a family after chemotherapy’, Wendy Taylor, 28
‘I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April last year. It didn’t run in my family and I was only 27 at the time, so you can imagine the immense fear I felt when I received that call. Within three weeks of my diagnosis, I had undergone a double mastectomy and was advised to start chemotherapy to reduce my risk of the cancer returning. I was paralysed with fear at the thought of two things: losing my hair and my fertility. My oncologist suggested I freeze my eggs before chemo. ‘At the fertility clinic they understood the urgency of retrieving eggs before my chemotherapy start date and the pressure I was under to get it right. The process was emotional for me. It happened over the course of a few weeks, starting with a series of blood tests and scans, progressing to daily injections in my stomach (thank goodness for my supportive partner who did this for me) to be administered first thing in the morning, alternating between the sides of the stomach. It all felt quite scientific, mixing various vials of liquid and powder into a syringe, making sure to insert it at the right angle. It becomes easier after practise. I had difficulty dealing with the bloating that occurs as your eggs start to mature. It becomes uncomfortable, plus, you are required to drink a minimum of two litres of water a day to create the ideal environment in your ovaries. The final injection you give yourself, the trigger shot, is done 36 hours before the retrieval is done. ‘I was anxious about the number of eggs they would be able to successfully harvest, but there was not much more I could do than follow the day-to-day instructions and trust the process. It always made me feel better when I reminded myself that I wasn’t the first person to have done this and I won’t be the last. ‘The actual process of the retrieval only took about fifteen minutes, and I was sedated throughout. When I woke up, they had put a smiley-face sticker on the back of my hand with the number 12 written on it. I was so relieved. I needed at least ten to stand a good chance at successful IVF later on. They were able to freeze eleven. ‘My oncologist and I had mapped out a plan to start IVF as soon as my chemotherapy was due to end, before I would need to begin hormone therapy for the next ten years. I knew exactly how long those little eggs would be waiting for me, and it was the only thing that got me through my chemotherapy.
‘At the end of February 2017, my first IVF round was scheduled. It was stressful knowing that I had a tight time frame for success, as I was due to start hormone therapy in December. But I found out that it was unsuccessful. I heard my heart break that day. They had to refreeze my embryos; with only five having survived that process it narrowed my chances even more. I was able to prep for a second round in April. Because I knew what to expect this time around I was a lot more relaxed and accepting of the outcome either way. Twelve days later, my pregnancy was confirmed as positive. ‘There is little that compares to the feeling of knowing that all the things you’ve been planning towards have finally paid off. Being a mom has been a lifelong dream of mine and 18 months ago, I thought I was never going to get a chance to do that. Not only were we lucky enough to have been successful, but we also found out at seven weeks that we were expecting twins. It felt like all the pieces of the puzzle had finally fallen into place and the universe gifted us with two amazing lives.’
‘I froze my eggs at 40,’ Kat de Sousa*, 46
‘I had been in an on-off relationship for six years, and was worried that I wouldn’t meet someone in time to have kids. So freezing eggs seemed like a sensible thing to do, like an insurance policy. When I turned 40 a switch turned on in my head that this could be my last chance to put things in motion to have a family. I’d read that the post-thaw rate of pregnancy from frozen eggs had become more viable and because I was single this seemed the best way to go. ‘My fertility doctor explained the stats which, given that I was 40, didn’t give me a stunning chance. Each cycle had about a 16% chance of a live birth. It was difficult making sure I injected myself with the hormones at the right time. I remember a mad dash at Jo’burg airport to buy a needle from the pharmacy. I was on my way to a conference and I had to inject myself in the toilet on the plane at a precise time, but realised I’d forgotten to pack a needle.
‘After a cycle of injectable hormones I was ready to be “harvested”. During the process I remember feeling especially lonely when the nurse asked me where my husband comes from because I have a Portuguese surname. Ugh! When that was done, the doctor told me I had 24 eggs. I was pretty chuffed about that. ‘My special secret that I had potential babies on ice relieved a feeling I had been carrying for so long – a ticking time bomb of declining fertility. It improved my confidence in relationships and soon I found myself in love and ready to start a family. Five years after they had been frozen we thawed and fertilised the eggs and prepared for a round of IVF. I was pretty confident it would work, as we had good numbers to start with. But my dream started to slip away as only 18 eggs survived the thaw, and 12 fertilised. Three of those matured enough to be considered for the day-five embryo transfer. My then-boyfriend feared the possibility of twins (though the chances were small), so we transferred only one embryo. The other two didn’t survive so we couldn’t freeze them for a subsequent embryo transfer. We had this one chance. Ten days after implantation, I did a blood pregnancy test; my initial result was positive, but a very low positive and I had to test again a day later. I got a call from the doctor, which I took in the airport toilets, and I was told it was negative. It hit me hard, and it was tough on my relationship, which ended a year later. Freezing your eggs is not a guarantee, by any means. However, it allowed me to keep living life for a while without worrying so much. I just wish I’d done it earlier.’
‘I froze my eggs while going through a divorce,’ Babalwa Zama*, 39
‘My husband and I had been struggling to fall pregnant for a few years. After being diagnosed with an abnormally low egg count at 37 (well below average for my age and health), and multiple cysts on my ovaries, I underwent ovarian surgery, during which most of my one ovary had to be removed. That meant that I would have an even lower egg count and my best chance of falling pregnant would be through IVF.During that process, though, my husband and I separated, so the eventual IVF was no longer on the cards. ‘My doctor suggested that should I ever want to conceive, I would need to freeze my eggs as quickly as possible; in his words, “right now ideally or in the next six months at most”.He was honest with me about the possibility of having to repeat the process, due to my lower-than-normal egg count, in order to get a “decent” number of viable eggs to freeze. The urgency in the doctor’s manner made me realise that it was serious. Freezing my eggs while my marriage was falling to pieces felt like clutching on to the only thing that represented some sort of control in my life at the time, and made me feel like I had the strength to be in the decision-making seat as opposed to letting life get the better of me. ‘To prepare for the procedure I drove to the hospital every day for 12 days in order to receive an injection, as injecting myself was totally impossible. I even practiced on an apple before, but when it came to it, panic took over and I was left incapable. The last five days I had to inject twice a day. ‘It was an emotional process, partly because of my circumstances, but also the physical aspect, considering my phobia of needles. I bruised quite badly on my stomach, and by the end struggled to find a “fresh” spot to inject. I noticed after four days the hormones made me super emotional – the ups and downs were noticeable: crying for nothing and feeling fragile. I don’t think anything can prepare you for the emotions that follow. I wish I’d done more technical research, or actually asked my doctor more in-depth details before. It may have made me feel calmer and manage my expectations better. ‘But there were positives. I made a special friendship with a nurse at the hospital and she was amazing. A partner, husband, friend or family member accompanies most women that go get their injections. I was alone. I will never forget the love and warmth she showed me. I still occasionally visit her. ‘I went through the process twice, waiting two months in between. I retrieved three eggs the first time, and four the second. Strangely, I have this conviction that if I ever conceive it will be naturally and that I will never have to use my frozen eggs and go though IVF. I’ve let go of the anxiety and now my frame of mind is: “If it’s meant to be, it will be”. Maybe this is because I feel “safe” that there is a back-up plan, or perhaps the whole experience made me realise that I have no control over anything and that there is no point living in the fear of an unknown future.
*all names have been changed
By Lori Cohen
This article appeared in the October 2017 issue of Marie Claire