3 women on why they chose to freeze their eggs

Written by Blog Admin
02 Nov
*This article was first published by Business Chicks

Women today experience a double-edged sword when it comes to starting a family. We have access to more career opportunities than ever before, and we’re living much longer lives yet our biological clocks haven’t shifted to keep up with the changing times.

We’re encouraged to pursue higher education, lean in to our careers, travel, find the perfect partner, and fit in as many rich life experiences as we can before ‘settling down’. 

Well, in theory, that’s how it’s supposed to go.

But one life plan isn’t going to fit all, and whatever your circumstances, with our partner Virtus Health, we want to give you the facts so that the family planning decisions you’re making are informed ones.     

Understanding what affects your fertility ie age, medical conditions and the health of your partner is the start. There is a lot of talk today about elective fertility preservation and egg freezing.  While freezing your eggs isn’t a silver bullet, it may provide the opportunity to preserve your potential of having a baby if you are not currently in the position to become pregnant or if your fertility may be at risk.

We spoke to three women who recently froze their eggs and asked them about why they decided it was right for them; sexologist and relationship expert, Dr Nikki Goldstein who froze her eggs at age 29, Van Sharma who froze her eggs in her early 30s, and successfully had a baby boy using donor sperm just over two years ago, and Hannah-May Linder who froze her eggs at 33, after attending a fertility seminar with her sister.

“I always thought that egg freezing was a foolproof plan,” says Dr Nikki. “You know, you pop your eggs in the freezer, and then if you want to have babies later, you just take them out.”

But while researching her newest book, #singlebutdating, Dr Nikki met a fertility specialist who shared some harsh realities about her future fertility.

“Taking my age and blood work into consideration, the fertility specialist said to me, ‘To take your eggs out now, and with the current technology, if we then were to insert them, you would have a 39 to 40 percent chance that this would actually follow through to a successful pregnancy.’”

“That was the aha moment for me to do it sooner rather than later,” says Dr Nikki of her decision to freeze her eggs. “That’s where I started to learn about the strength of the egg and your age.”

“I wanted to get to my 30th birthday and go, ‘eggs are in the freezer, I can just focus on being me, and working out what all that means going from my 20s to my 30s.’”

Van Sharma, now 39, has always been driven by her life goals and decisions. Through her 20’s she focused on study, travel and establishing her career. Having lived in three different countries, she moved back to Australia in her early 30s to put down her roots.

“Having a baby has always been part of my life plan, and I was keen to be prepared for when I was ready to be a mum – whenever that would be,” says Van. “So I educated myself early to understand the impacts that age has on fertility and put a plan in place to give myself some options.”

“At 33, I froze my first batch of [unfertilised] eggs and didn’t think much more about it – it was a pretty straightforward process.”

“Then at 37, I felt relatively secure with my job, home, finances as well as having a good support network around me, so I decided to a give donor cycle a go using a sperm donor. The clinic were fantastic and provided amazing support so that also helped,” says Van. “Luckily for me the planets aligned and I was very fortunate to have fallen pregnant in my first (FET) cycle – in fact, I surprised myself given the stats – and at 38 I gave birth to baby boy.”

Hannah-May Linder was 32 when an AMH test undertaken by her GP showed her egg reserve levels were lower than average for her age. She immediately consulted a specialist to explore her options, but a negative experience meant she put things on the back burner.

Six months later at 33, a visit to an educational fertility seminar supporting her sister in her own IVF journey, Hannah-May met a different fertility specialist and reconsidered the egg freezing process.

“I was taken back to the thought of ultimately missing out on becoming a mother,” says Hannah-May. “It’s been a lifelong goal of mine to have kids, so at this time I thought if there is a way I can intervene with my fertility, I will, regardless of the outcome further down the track.”

As Dr Nikki showed in her 25-minute documentary, egg freezing isn’t a simple one-day process. To obtain eggs for freezing, a woman will usually have hormonal stimulation for 10-12 days, which enables a number of eggs to mature. The eggs are then collected from the ovaries under a light general anaesthetic or sedation.  

“Emotionally I found it very difficult,” says Dr Nikki. “I did feel – and this has even furthered my passion for talking about this publicly – that even in the waiting room there’s a stigma attached.”

“Women in the waiting room might be going through IVF, they might be going through egg freezing or some sort of fertility issues, but no one talks to each other. We’re all kind of there to ensure that we are mothers one day, or in the immediate future.”

“So that’s why I think it’s so important not only to have the information available but to be able to whip the shame and guilt away from it so that women do feel more comfortable being outspoken and supportive of each other.”

As for Van Sharma, informing herself and her positive outlook helped to prepare her throughout the process.

“The process of harvesting eggs can be strenuous on your body with the drugs and various tests,” says Van. “But if you are mentally prepared then you know what to expect.”

“Doing it as a solo also mum brings its own set of tolerance and testing circumstances too, but I’m a positive person and tend to see the fortune in most things.”

As for Hannah-May, she found the support from the fertility clinic team to be incredibly thorough and seamless.

“My gynaecologist and his team were very supportive, informative and tactful throughout the entire process.”

For anyone thinking about freezing their eggs, Hannah-May urges, “Do not wait!”

“Do not keep putting it off. Make that appointment. Ask your GP to test your AMH levels. Ask the questions. Ask what your options are.”

“I would advise women to dig deeper into the process,” says Hannah-May. “Educate yourself and seek further information on all of the possible outcomes.”

A year on from her egg retrieval, Hannah-May has decided to make 2019 the year she starts her family using donor sperm. “The amount of time it would take me to be wholehearted in a relationship with someone, and know they are completely desirable and worthy of fathering my children, is far greater than the time I have fertility-wise, says Hannah-May.

“I am electing to be a single mum by choice, and I feel empowered to be able to make that decision. I am so excited for what is to come!”

“Research and become aware of your body and your fertility. I have learned so much over the past few years. They don’t say your biological clock is ticking for nothing.”

Van Sharma also has similar advice, ”educate yourself early, so you know what your options are and what the stats say.”

“But don’t let that be deterrent to what you want to do with your life and the choices you make for yourself. Back yourself.”  

Dr Nikki also advocates for doing your research and not putting it off thinking, ‘I’ll leave it for two years and then if I don’t meet a nice guy, then I’ll do it,’ because of the impacts that can have to your chances of later falling pregnant.

“I would say if you’re thinking about it, make sure you have a strong support network around you, and start having the conversations with them as well,” says Dr Nikki. “It might be your friends; it might be your family. It might even be your partner because this is something that’s always been directed towards single women, but what happens if you’re in a relationship? And both of you are not wanting to have children anytime soon.”

As a single parent of an almost two-year-old, Van Sharma has already had to navigate many tough but well-meaning conversations from friends and family.

“Of course I have had some tough questions along the way by people who don’t understand egg freezing or IVF or perhaps have different values to me. You know, questions like, ‘what about the unused eggs’ …’how will you do this on your own’…’isn’t IVF it risky to your health’…’how did you choose a donor and how will you explain it to your son’ but I truly relish in these questions as I see them as a fantastic opportunity to share experiences and educate others to be more accepting of the world we live in today.” says Van.  

“I also see it as an opportunity to pioneer the way for other women and families who are considering such options but aren’t sure,” says Van. “In my mind, life isn’t a dress rehearsal. This is it – your one chance. Do you want to do, and back yourself.”  

If we are to make the best decisions for our future selves, our health, our fertility, then really we need to be given all the correct information so that we then can work out what’s best going to fit our lives says Dr Nikki.

“We are often judged according to our fertility, as women,” says Dr Nikki.

“We are judged if we decide not to have children, it’s like “what’s wrong with you?” We’re judged when we decide to delay children for whatever reason. There’s a lot of shame around not being able to find the right guy or in putting your career before motherhood.”

“There is so much shame that’s placed on a woman for utilising technology to either prolong motherhood or assist with the process. And that’s just so wrong, and it’s a societal issue that we need to get our head around.”

“I think this is probably the most interesting era for women,” says Dr Nikki. “We’ve got this empowerment that’s going on, but women still want to be mothers.”

“People should be talking about different ways to be mothers. Why are we so stuck to this idea that you go to uni, or you get a job, you do some travelling, and then you have babies? This mould that’s set in front of us, it’s not working for 50 percent of us.”


Egg Freezing - The Facts

Egg freezing for non-medical reasons is most effective in women under 35 because fertility begins to deteriorate after this age.

The expected success of the procedure can be ascertained from an initial assessment of the ovarian reserve, via a blood test Anti-Mullerian Hormone (AMH) and an ultrasound to count the number of antral follicles.


Success rates for egg freezing

Success rates vary for different women so it’s not possible to give precise figures for the chance of pregnancy after freezing. In general, live birth rates using frozen eggs depend heavily on the age of the woman when the eggs were collected and frozen, irrespective of the age at attempted pregnancy.

On average a woman under the age of 35 will have 10 mature eggs collected in a single procedure, but this number reduces by approximately 1 egg per year above 35.

The age at egg collection also influences the chance that a mature egg will successfully thaw, fertilise, develop to blastocyst and become a live birth.

15-20 eggs gives a 50% chance of at least one pregnancy in women under 38. On average, to achieve a 50% chance of having at least one live birth at a later age, a woman would need to have frozen 7 mature eggs at or before 35 years of age (from approximately 1 egg collection), 15 eggs at 38 years of age (from approximately 2 egg collections) or 25 eggs at 40 years of age (from approximately 4 egg collections)


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Watch Leeanda talk more about Advanced Embryo Selection:

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Sperm Donation: Giving the gift of life

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It takes a special kind of person to consider donating, let alone to actually go through with the process.  Even for men who have a genuine desire to help others, there are some concerns which may put them off the idea.

Full anonymity is no longer possible in Australia. The potential for a child to seek out their genetic father is now a requirement. This does not mean being confronted at your front door by an 18 year old claiming that ‘you are my Dad’. A child will be able to find out if they are the result of donor conception by approaching a Government register, on which your name will have been lodged by the original treating clinic. Depending on the State, you will be contacted to notify you of the enquiry, and be given the opportunity to make contact – much in the way adopted children are linked with their original parents. This openness dissuades many potential donors.

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Fertility Preservation: Hope for the future

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The publicity around this procedure was very much welcomed. It helped raise awareness amongst the thousands of Australian women impacted by cancer in their reproductive years, and we received many enquiries from women who have had a cancer diagnosis either recently or in the past. We can’t stress enough the importance of women having the opportunity to discuss their options prior to undergoing cancer treatment, and we continue to look for ways to raise awareness amongst the public and the medical profession.

But as reported in the 60 Minutes story, the procedure has attracted publicity for reasons beyond helping cancer patients. A clinic in the US is advocating freezing the tissue of young women so that the tissue can be grafted later to help them conceive if required in their forties, thereby promoting the procedure to woman as a way to put their fertility ‘on ice’ as a form of reproductive insurance. It’s being touted the ‘future of fertility for all women’ - not just those who have had cancer - and there are now two clinics in the world that offer ovarian tissue freezing for social reasons so that women can have babies later in life, well into their 40s and even their 50s.

In Australia, ovarian tissue freezing and grafting has been performed for some years and the grafting is still considered an experimental form of treatment by all fertility specialists across the country. This is because around the world only 19 babies have been born, despite many many attempts. Fertility specialists around the world agree that it is very difficult to grow good eggs from grafted ovarian tissue. In fact some of the reported births are now thought to be spontaneous pregnancies in women whose own ovarian tissue has started to function again, rather than pregnancies from the grafted tissue!

Here, the technique is offered routinely for medical reasons only, and we believe there are very good reasons for this.

Ovarian tissue grafting involves removing a small piece of ovarian tissue from one ovary, slicing the tissue into tiny pieces and freezing them until the woman is ready to conceive. The tissue is then grafted back into the woman’s pelvis where the grafted ovarian tissue can start to produce reproductive hormones and follicular development. The idea is that pregnancy can be achieved either with ovarian stimulation and IVF, or perhaps even naturally.

The procedure is deemed suitable for girls in their teenage years and women in their 20s, when it is believed to yield a higher chance of success due to the abundance of immature and better eggs in the wall of the ovary. These women are often impacted by cancers such as leukaemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

But it’s not a procedure that comes without its own risks. Laparoscopy is a procedure used to remove the tissue and then graft. This operation has a 1/1000 risk of complications and a 1/50000 risk of life-threatening complications. The removal of the tissue can potentially cause damage to the ovaries and it does reduce the number of eggs available for spontaneous ovulation and reproductive function. That is why we only remove the tissue when a woman’s ovarian function has a high chance of being severely damaged by the cancer treatment.

Also, should a woman undergo the procedure, then later on when she is ready, there is no guarantee that she will be able to achieve her so longed for baby. So to offer the procedure for non-medical reasons does not make medical sense. It also raises ethical questions about women beyond their natural reproductive years having children – perhaps a topic for another blog post.

For women seeking fertility preservation techniques for social reasons there is no doubt that despite the genuine desire to meet their life partner and start their family in their 20s or 30s, for many women this choice is dictated by circumstance. Our message to these women remains – ‘don’t put off having children’, however we realise this cannot always be avoided. These women should not be denied the option to preserve their fertility, but they should know that there are other options available.

Egg freezing is a method of freezing unfertilised eggs, with a view to them being used in the future. The eggs are thawed and fertilised with sperm to form an embryo so that it can be transferred back to the woman’s uterus with a subsequent chance of pregnancy. This is a good option for women in their early 30s who are concerned that they won’t have met their life partner before their eggs start to age and thus are less likely to produce a pregnancy. Melbourne IVF has been freezing eggs since 1999, mostly as a form of fertility preservation for patients facing cancer where other fertility preservation techniques are not suitable, but more commonly in the last 2 to 5 years for social reasons. The success rates of egg survival after freezing and thawing have improved significantly over the years with many babies born through our program, but, as with any form of fertility treatment, there are still no guarantees. For every 10 eggs frozen, we can expect to only obtain 2-3 good embryos, which means only 2-3 opportunities to conceive.

Likewise, while we know from our own and international experience that ovarian tissue grafting can be successful, it is by no means a golden solution. Worldwide there have been around19 babies born in the last 8 years and in Australia whilst we have come close, we are yet to welcome our first baby following the procedure. We have however successfully removed, frozen and grafted ovarian tissue for more than 10 women facing serious cancer diagnosis. To date only a couple of these women have actively been trying to conceive. However tissue freezing has given these the opportunity to take a positive step towards preserving their fertility – which is a chance at a future family of their own that would otherwise not have existed.

As part of the Fertility Preservation Service at Melbourne IVF and the Women’s Hospital, we have been performing ovarian tissue grafting since 2006. We believe we are not far from having our first birth with several patients now starting to undergo treatment currently with promising outcomes. This will be an enormous achievement that we hope will reinforce ovarian tissue grafting as a technique that can give hope to thousands of women facing cancer in Australia each year.

Dr Kate Stern is Head of the Fertility Preservation Service at Melbourne IVF and the Women’s Hospital in Melbourne.

Dr Kate Stern was recently interviewed on 60 Minutes about the ovarian tissue grafting procedure - read the full transcript here.

Blog Admin
02 Nov

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