Egg freezing is increasingly popular amongst American women, with 76,000 predicted to be undergoing the procedure by 2018 (up from just 500 in 2009 and 5,000 in 2013). But while it is an important alternative to traditional methods of conception in everyone from the career driven to cancer patients, it’s not all plain sailing.
Here are the things you need to know:
Check your viability first
When it comes to conception, there aren’t many secrets: If you’re young and healthy, you have the greatest likelihood of getting pregnant. It is most effective to freeze your eggs during your 20s and early 30s, but it’s important to get tested beforehand to assess how likely it is that the process will prove successful. An Anti-Müllerian Hormone test, Doppler scan, and antral follicle count will all combine to produce a clearer picture of the viability of whether egg freezing could lead to pregnancy.
Women are born with all the eggs they will ever have, but their quality diminishes over time. A study by Fertility and Sterility found that the implantation success rate for women over 40 was just 9 percent. Conditions such as endometriosis, where tissue that should grow inside of the womb grows outside of it, can also degrade their number and condition.
The process can be painful
Getting your eggs frozen isn’t a one-stop shop, but rather a four- to-six week process for each cycle. It involves up to three weeks of hormone-blocking pills (depending on where you are in the menstrual cycle) that suspend the natural production of eggs, followed by two weeks of hormone injections administered to either the stomach or upper thigh, up to three times daily. A handful of doctor’s visits occur during this period, in which blood tests and ultrasounds are used to monitor the progress of the treatments.
A day and a half before the extraction procedure, patients are given a trigger shot, which prepares the eggs for maturing. The final stage of the process is the transvaginal ultrasound, which sees the eggs removed through a needle passed through the vaginal wall, before they are frozen using liquid nitrogen. When the patient decides to harvest them either months or years later, they are thawed, fertilized with the injection of a single sperm, and passed through to the uterus as embryos.
“I wish someone would have told me straight about how shit I might feel,” Eleanor Morgan wrote of her experience with egg freezing in The Guardian. “There’s the druggy, cartoonish tiredness. The tears. The potential mental health wobbles. The loneliness of an experience people don’t want to ask you about too much in case they think it should be private, when actually, you’re dying for someone to come round.”
The implications of egg freezing go far beyond the physical, explains Shalene Petricek, a trainer in the biotech industry and partner at egg freezing and donation agency Gifted Journeys, who has gone through four cycles of her own. “We have cycled through many women who are emotional about the entire process not just because of the daily shots, but [because] it is a reality check of where they are in their lives and many of them do not want to be there…They know that their fertility is diminishing and want to give themselves the best chance for that family, but they are also faced with the knowledge that while this is a chance, there is still no guarantee.”
It costs a lot of money
The average cost of egg freezing in the U.S. is $10,000, which covers the tests, extraction and storage. “Financially it is quite stressful,” Petricek says. “No one ever thinks that they will have to shell out thousands of dollars because life has dealt them a different hand.”
The reality of the financial burden hit the headlines last year when Apple and Facebook announced that they’d contribute up to $20,000 towards staff members who wanted to undertake the procedure: a move that seemed to simultaneously remind female employees of the importance of child-rearing while letting them know they’d be too overworked to do so while natural conception was a possibility. It remains a solid option for those unable to take time off work to start a family, with the average age at which a woman freezes her eggs being 36.
The success rate is around 24 percent
The number of frozen eggs that result in live births vary from clinic to clinic, but based on data from Kevin Doody, former chairman of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology registry, the 353 thawing-cycles in 2012 produced 83 births, while the 414 thaws in 2013 resulted in 99. That puts the success rate at just under one quarter.
“I froze my eggs in my early 30s knowing that it was the optimal time to get healthier eggs and not risk losing the option of having my own biological children,” recalls Wendie Wilson Miller, president of Gifted Journeys. “Our futures are unknown and unpredictable. If people end up not needing their eggs and donating them to science or discarding them, then that’s fine—but if they do end up needing them, it could save a lot of heartache—and money—in their future.”
Freezing embryos is more effective
For those who have a partner but feel as though it isn’t the right time for children, freezing your embryos has a much higher success rate than going through the procedure with eggs alone, as not all of them survive the thawing and thus cannot be fertilized. Frozen embryos are also less delicate than matured eggs, giving them a greater chance of successful implantation down the line.