Everything You Wanted to Know about Egg Freezing But Weren’t Sure Who to Ask!

You’ve been thinking about it. You’ve been talking about it. You’ve been reading about it: egg freezing. Fertility preservation. Oocyte cryopreservation. Putting your eggs on ice. Whatever you call it, you’ve been considering it. And whether it’s been on your mind for weeks, for months, or maybe even for years, you can’t shake the feeling that this procedure is something you want to do—or at the very least, learn more about.

In the age of iPhones, blogs, and Facebook, there’s no shortage of information out there about the egg freezing process. You can get most of your questions answered without even walking out of your apartment! But while we’re big fans of community, particularly one that shares content and empowers women to make educated decisions about their bodies (#trulyMD), not all information sharing is created equal. Some of what’s out there is simply inaccurate. Content can be colored based on an individual’s experience: good or bad.

As fertility MDs, girlfriends, and exercise enthusiasts, we’ve chatted with patients, friends, and ladies we meet on the shower line in the locker room about egg freezing: what they know, what they want to know, and what they wish they knew.

Here are the top five questions we’re most frequently asked:

  1. How do I know if my eggs are any good?
    Hands down, this is the question that we’re asked the most. Will the eggs that I freeze today be good enough to make a baby in X number of years? And unfortunately, despite everything that we can do, answering this question accurately is not one of them. There is no way for any fertility doctor to predict whether the eggs that you make today will have what it takes to make healthy embryos in the future. Although we use factors such as age, follicle count, and hormone levels to guide us in guiding you, there’s nothing out there that can answer your question definitively. However, when all else fails, look at your birth date. Simply stated, age trumps everything. The younger you are when you freeze, the more eggs you’ll get and the better your chances are in the future.
  2. Will I feel crazy on the medications?
    No, you probably won’t. While it’s fairly common to fear the negative side effects the drugs can have on your mind, it’s fairly uncommon to have any such side effects. In fact, most women tolerate the medications without a problem. So, trade the negative energy for the positive vibes! You should feel empowered for going through with the procedure. Giving yourself two to three shots a day for about 10 days makes you a warrior, not a wimp!
  3. Will I gain weight on the medications?                                                                              Here’s the skinny (or the not-so-skinny) on egg freeing and extra lbs. You’re likely going to gain weight during the process. Your pants will probably feel tight, and leggings and loose dresses will be your wardrobe staple for about two weeks. However, for most women this is no more than a few pounds, and the extra weight that is added is shed during the period following the egg retrieval.
  4. Will I ruin my chances of having a baby in the future?
    Unfortunately, with eggs there is no collecting “comp time.” Simply stated, if you don’t use them, you’ll lose them. So, the eggs that we collect during that retrieval are not being taken from you but actually saved for you. There’s no loss, just gain!
  5. Does it matter where I freeze my eggs (a.k.a. should I pick the least expensive option)?                                                                                                                                                  The reality is that not all egg freezing centers/fertility clinics are created equal. Some are way more experienced and way more talented at the freezing process. They not only know how to freeze your eggs but also how to thaw your eggs, fertilize your eggs, and help your eggs become healthy embryos. And while you’ll be spending a lot of time at the fertility clinic for about two weeks, don’t pick a center based on their proximity to your apartment, the color of the waiting room, or the “deals” they’re offering. We’re talking about your eggs and your future fertility. This isn’t a place to play Let’s Make a Deal.

If it’s been on your mind, go and let it out by talking to your GYN or a fertility MD) While you may choose not to do it, you won’t regret not giving yourself that choice. Although you may still play the “should-a, would-a, could-a game,” when you look back on this decision in one, five, or 10 years, you’ll appreciate that you considered all the options and made an educated decision!

The 5 Most Important Questions to Ask When Looking for a Fertility Clinic

While fertility clinics aren’t as prevalent as Starbucks and Duane Reade in New York City, there are definitely many options to choose from. From uptown to downtown, the east side to the west side, you have a choice. And unless your BFF or your OB/GYN points you in a certain direction, deciding where to direct your care can be difficult. Whom you see and where you go can be the difference between walking away with a baby and walking away with nothing more than a big bill.

Here are the five questions you should ask before deciding where to do your thing!

  1. Success Rates:
    Fertility medicine is moving fast. To quote our friend Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast…if you don’t stop and look around once in a while you could miss it.” The same goes for fertility treatment! As a result, you need to make sure wherever you go for treatment not only knows this but also practices fertility medicine on their toes. Being up to date with the newest techniques and latest procedures translates into success. Furthermore, you want to check the success rates of the clinic you are visiting and what they are doing to get those success rates—say, are they putting in multiple embryos to get a pregnancy, or can they achieve those success rates with a single embryo transfer? Although your goal may be to have a brood one healthy baby at a time is the safest way to go.
  2. Practice Styles:
    While we all went to medical school followed by a residency and fellowship to become board-certified Reproductive Endocrinologists, the way physicians practice medicine can be very different. Some are talkers, and some are quiet. Some like to chat on the phone, and some prefer to email. Some move fast, and some move slow. Make sure that whom you select as a doctor matches your needs and personality. These partnerships can be lengthy; you want to make sure you find someone who has the “death do us part”-type of feel. While you can certainly get a divorce if things get rocky, starting over puts you back at square one (minus some valuable time).
  3. Take a number; we’ll see you in an hour:
    Unfortunately, many fertility clinics have started to resemble factories. Patients are shuttled in and out like cattle going down an assembly line. Waiting rooms are littered with patients, and you can go an entire IVF cycle without seeing a physician who knows you by name. Before you commit to a specific center, ask around about how the clinic functions and what previous patients who have been treated there have experienced. While it may not change your decision about where you decide to be treated, it will prepare you for what lies ahead.
  4. Availability:
    We all have busy lives and schedules. Trying to squeeze in time to chat with your mom can be a challenge. Therefore, it’s important that you know when both your doctor and fertility clinic will be available not only to speak to you but also to see you. Just like personalities, you want to make sure that your schedule can effectively merge with their schedule.
  5. Honesty is key:
    Sugarcoating the situation when it comes to your ability to have a child can become a “sour” situation. You need to make sure that the physician you are seeing is honest with your prognosis, the chance of the treatment being successful, and the clinic’s ability to help you achieve your goal of having a baby.

     

When You See Red, Don’t Panic: First Trimester Bleeding

     There is nothing more disconcerting than looking down and seeing red. Whether it’s dark or bright, light or heavy, it can make you hold your breath and start praying. Blood is viewed as the harbinger of very bad things to come. (For all of you Game of Thrones fans, it’s like winter is coming!) But the reality is that blood, be it red or brown, with or without cramping, does not mean this pregnancy is case closed. It could mean absolutely nothing at all.

     And while we get that this is hard to believe and even harder not to panic over, bleeding in early pregnancy is incredibly common. In fact, it is the most common call an OB/GYN gets. It occurs in up to 40% of all pregnancies! It is so common that we can recite the list of dos and don’ts, shoulds and shouldn’ts, whys and why nots in our sleep (which is good, because these calls usually come in the middle of the night!).

     First things first, bleeding in pregnancy is not always pregnancy related. Pregnant women still have intestines, vaginas, and cervices that will bleed irrespective of that baby on board. So while the first finger everyone points is towards your belly, we need to make sure that the uterus is really where things are coming from. Things like cervical polyps, cervical irritation, vaginal tears, and vaginal warts can cause vaginal bleeding. While they are not harmful for you or your pregnancy, identifying them early can ease anxiety and allow us to treat them. In very rare cases, such bleeding can be indicative of a cervical or vaginal cancer, so a good look inside by your OB is important.

     On a slightly different note, the rectum can bleed for a number of reasons during pregnancy. Pregnancy is marked by constipation, pressure, and changes in our bathroom habits. This can exacerbate or lead to things like hemorrhoids, anal fissures, and polyps (not fun). And not only can they cause pain, itching, and discomfort, but they can also bleed. Rectal blood is often mistaken for vaginal blood. While no blood is good blood, rectal bleeding has nothing to do with the health of the pregnancy.

     The big three of early bleeding in pregnancy are the following—miscarriage, ectopic, implantation or physiologic bleeding (a.k.a. nothing to worry about). How we differentiate between the three usually requires both a good chat and a good check. During the chat part, we will ask you questions about timing, quantity, pain, and the events that preceded the bleeding (intercourse, activity, etc.). We will also want to know when your last period was, if you took fertility medications, and if you have recently seen an OB. This will allow us to narrow down the culprit. The “check” part will include both a pelvic exam (who doesn’t love that speculum?) as well as an ultrasound and blood work.

What we are looking for are things like:

  • Is the cervix open?
  • Can we see a pregnancy in the uterus?
  • Is there blood surrounding the pregnancy (subchorionic hematoma) or in the pelvis?
  • Is your pregnancy hormone appropriately elevated?
  • What is your blood type?

These checkpoints, combined with a good chat, will clear the way for a diagnosis (and hopefully a cease fire to this bleeding).

     Sometimes the reason behind bleeding in pregnancy isn’t so clear. And while we certainly don’t want to torture you, it can take a few visits and even a couple of weeks to answer the questions where it is coming from and if this pregnancy is going to be a go. Oftentimes, we need to take a second or third look with the ultrasound and at the pregnancy hormone before we can comfortably call it. During this time, we may ask you to take it easy (no exercise, no intercourse), stay close to home (no major travel), and keep us on speed dial. We want to know what’s going on, as this may get us to make the diagnosis quicker.

     Bleeding in pregnancy not only brings women anxiety but also guilt and blame (almost all of which we point towards ourselves). However, whether bleeding happens for no identifiable reason or because of a miscarriage, in neither case is it a result of something you did, something you ate, or something you didn’t do. Bottom line, it is not your fault. Say that in your head ten times over until you truly believe it. Unfortunately, sh–t happens. And while that may not be eloquent, it is the truth.

     Although you probably found us through a Google search, an Instagram post, or a Tweet, the Internet can be a dangerous place (particularly in the middle of the night when it comes to bleeding and pregnancy). And while we too have our “Google MDs” (in everything non-OB/GYN related) and like to browse and self-diagnose, we caution you from putting a lot of stock into what you read and what you see. It may do nothing more than make you crazy and keep you from getting a good night’s sleep (which every expecting mother needs)!
     To put it bluntly, we have seen women soak their beds with bright-red blood who go on to deliver healthy babies and those who notice one spot of dark-brown blood who go on to miscarry. Nothing is predictive. So doctor’s orders (after you read this): close your computer. Pull out a good book, or put on a funny movie. Getting your mind off of what’s going on below is the best way to pass the time. Laughter certainly won’t make matters worse. Let your doctor focus on the detective work.

Got the All Clear, But Can I Really Re-Consummate This Relationship? Sex after Baby

The first six weeks after your baby is born are a major blur. Let’s be real: while there are magical moments, most of your days are filled with spit up, dirty diapers, milk stains, and sweats (don’t think we changed out of our workout clothes once!). Your home becomes a welcoming ground for friends, family, and all of those well-wishers who can’t wait to meet your little one.

And while you welcome a break from the routine (feed, burp, diaper, sleep), their presence can be beyond overwhelming. It’s not only the germs you see them bringing into your Purel-ed place or the gift that now requires a thank-you note (you could write a thank-you note for that cute onesie in your sleep!), but your energy level for entertaining is at an all-time low. It is not easy.

And to top it all off, your body still does not feel like your own. You’re still bleeding, your boobs are now enormous, and your belly still looks pregnant. (We have all been there. It is not fun one month after delivering, when that friendly neighbor says, “Any day now: you must be so excited!”). Additionally, you are now on pelvic rest—a.k.a. nothing in the vagina for six weeks post-delivery (whether or not your kid came out from below or through your belly). That includes no tampons and no sex.

So you make it through the first six weeks sleepless and sexless and go to your OB for the famous post-partum visit. She or he chats about life, how you are feeling, and how you are adjusting. They weigh you (ugh, still have 15 pounds to go) and examine your incisions (both abdominally and/or vaginally). Then they begin the discussion about birth control—pills versus patch, condoms versus IUD, or for those at the end of the baby line, tying your tubes versus tying his tubes (a.k.a. a vasectomy).

This subject transitions into “YOU are all good to go”; basically, you have the green light to have sex again. At this moment, you are probably thinking, Am I really ready to turn in my postpartum hospital-grade underwear? (Gotta admit, those are the best!) for my Hanky Pankys? Given your current state, sleepless and shaveless, it’s hard to imagine being intimate again.

Let us give you a quick preview… It’s as dry as the desert in summer down there, and no matter how much lubricant you use, you will still feel like you are being set on fire. We are here to say not to worry; while completely unpleasant, it is totally normal. In a large study of post-partum women, nearly 85% of women reported sexual problems at three months’ postpartum (See, you are not alone).

Your mind and body have gone through some pretty serious changes, and it will take time for things to go back to normal. And the good news is that for most it will go back to normal. Research shows that about 50% of women reported dyspareunia (medical way to say pain with sex) at two months post-partum. By 18 months postpartum, this number decreased to 24% (See, time does heal all wounds!).

Post-delivery, your estrogen levels plummet. This drop is not only caused by the delivery of your baby and placenta, but also by the rise in prolactin (the hormone that produces breast milk). Prolactin levels remain elevated post-partum to allow for the continued production of milk. With this high comes the persistent low of estrogen.

In addition to the mood changes, the hair changes, the skin changes, and the headaches that come with low estrogen, you can also welcome vaginal dryness. And not just the mild “Oh, KY Jelly or Astroglide can fix that” vaginal dryness…it’s a dryness that requires an army of products. Medically, we call it “atrophy” or “friable.” Due to “atrophy,” you can often see bleeding post-sex. Again, we are here to say that this is not uncommon.

In addition to the discomfort experienced with sex post-partum, a significant number of women report decreased libido. Nearly 60% of women reported a decreased libido at three months post-partum. Not surprisingly, they cited fatigue, discomfort, and fear of making a bad situation worse. Women who breastfeed were even more likely to report a decrease in libido than non-breastfeeding women; this is likely because those who don’t breastfeed have a faster return of their hormones to baseline. However, the difference did not persist for the long term (again, nothing lasts forever!).

Ways to combat this problem include lubricants and vaginal estrogen creams. So even without a major makeover, in most cases, things will get better. Now, if you sustained a serious tear or had a complication with your laceration or episiotomy, the situation might be a bit more complex. It may require you to sit out on the bench for a bit longer and apply a more comprehensive armamentarium of medications and products. But don’t worry. Even in the most serious cases, with the help of an OB/GYN, a pelvic surgeon, and in most cases, physical therapists, this team can help restore the situation back to normal (although you may need to consider having a C Section for your next child to avoid a repeat event if the situation was really bad).

Bottom line is that your bottom will heal—it just takes time. If you don’t feel like you, physically and emotionally, it is totally normal. Don’t be afraid to give your body and your brain time to rest; the postpartum period is no joke! But rest assured, with a little rest and assurance, you will be back in the game in no time.

Compounded Bioidentical Hormones…Are They Really the Best Fit?

Thanks to Samantha on Sex and the City and Oprah, compounded bioidentical hormones have gotten a whole lot of press. They have been billed as the best thing since sliced bread. They have become the good guy, while the prescription drugs (a.k.a. conventional hormone replacement therapy, or HRT) have become the bad guy. Bioidentical hormones have been called “natural,” “organic,” and everything in between.

Unfortunately, most women are being sold snake oil, and what they are getting is far from natural. They are victims of false advertising and in most cases are unaware of what compounded bioidentical hormones actually are and how they differ from standard hormone therapy, if at all.

The public and medical opinion on hormone replacement therapy for post- and perimenopausal women has run quite the gamut. The pendulum has swung further on this issue than almost any other topic in gynecology. Before the results of the Women’s Health Initiative (a large study initiated in 1991 to examine estrogen and progesterone’s impact on postmenopausal women) were released in 2002, HRT was lauded as the fountain of youth.

Estrogen and progesterone in the postmenopausal woman were not only believed to improve the nagging symptoms of menopause (hot flashes, vagina dryness, etc.) but also to improve a woman’s overall health. The results of this large study showed almost exactly the opposite. This led GYNs to turn their HRT-writing prescription pads in ASAP and caused women to quickly trash their stash! However, a closer examination of the study and the study population over the past 10 to 15 years has called into question a lot of the initial findings and negative hype.

It now seems that HRT in the right woman (again, the right woman) is no longer the devil and actually can be pretty helpful. While it is no longer believed to improve overall health and prevent things like heart disease, stroke, and breast cancer, it can be useful for women with beyond-bothersome menopausal symptoms.

So if HRT was good, then bad, and now sort of good, what is all the hype about compounded bioidenticals? Did they, too, follow this trend? What are they, and what makes them so different? Bioidentical hormones are plant-derived hormones similar to those produced by our bodies. They include both products that are and are not approved by the FDA.

Think of the FDA as the FBI; they are there to keep you safe when it comes to anything drug- or medicine-related. They test products, procedures, and techniques and make sure things look kosher before you use them. However, the FDA does not oversee the production of compounded bioidentical hormones. They have not checked these drugs for safety, efficacy, potency, purity, or quality. Basically, the inmates are running the asylum. Overdosing and underdosing are both more than possible, and you can’t be sure that what you took on Monday is going to be the same thing you take on Tuesday.

You might now ask, what is compounding? Is it just a fancy way to say “mixing”? Basically, yes. Compounding is creating an individualized product based on the prescription written by the health care provider. Given that the product is custom made, there is no regulation over what is put into that “cocktail.” While you may think your vodka cranberry drink tastes better with a little more vodka, it might not be good for you. And unfortunately, given that it has deviated from the traditional vodka cranberry, no one will be checking to make sure it’s safe.

Now don’t get us wrong; compounding has its place in medicine. It has traditionally been used when specific products are not available or if different preservatives, routes, or ingredients are needed to deliver a medication. An example is the following…you need to take progesterone but it traditionally comes mixed in peanut oil—but you are allergic to peanut oil. Therefore you can’t take the medication UNLESS it is compounded with something else (aka sesame oil). Changes like this are what compounding was meant for!

But give me a little of this, mixed with some of that, and a splash of something else (a.k.a. blending) is not what compounding is or was intended to do. However, this blending concept is how it is often sold and marketed when used to describe hormone replacement therapy. When we were all down on HRT, compounded bioidenticals gained foot traffic because they appeared, and were billed to be, a safe alternative. They were marketed as the same good but no bad. The story was bought by many hook, line, and sinker and led many women to have a false sense of security about what they were putting into their bodies.

Many practitioners who prescribe bioidentical hormones tout them as personalized or tailored. They sell them as a perfect fit (sort of like those jeans that you are always trying to find!). But in reality, you don’t really know what you are buying, ingesting, or drinking. They are free from warning labels and any information on risks. But while ignorance can certainly be bliss, in many cases, this is not one of them! For example, if you are not taking enough progesterone in comparison to estrogen, you can put yourself at risk for uterine cancer—it’s just not a good situation.

And let’s take it one step further. Those that tout compounded bioidentical hormones will tell you they can check your levels through your saliva and can further tailor your treatment according to what they find. There is no evidence that hormone levels in saliva have any biological meaning; while we can pick up some things from your spit, we cannot pick up the level of your circulating hormones. So chew on this: don’t put yourself in danger because you want something natural. Compounded bioidentical hormones are not necessarily the answer.

The specific medications, the dosage, and the way the medications are delivered (oral, patch, vaginal) should be made to order for you. However, this should be done with FDA-approved medications where your doctor knows exactly what they are writing for you and you know exactly what you are ingesting. So while, yes, medicine should be tailored to you, the tailoring should not come in how the medication is mixed but rather how it is administered.

While we all agree that you need a good designer, some designs are not meant to be worn (think midriff shirts). So while you can look, please don’t buy. If the salesperson tells you it looks good, don’t believe it…just like bioidentical hormones, it’s not necessarily the best fit!

When Doctor Becomes Patient

I (Sheeva) am a breast cancer survivor. And while I have uttered those words numerous times over the past three years, it is still shocking to hear myself say it. I had no risk factors. In fact, I had all the “protective” factors and a “normal” mammogram only six months prior to the diagnosis. Nonetheless, it happened to me. And because I was a seemingly unexpected bystander, I have chosen to share my story with all of you. Truthfully and honestly. So here it goes, the unedited version.

I was 38 years old with two children, and I was “done and done.” And while “done and done” means different things to different people, for me, it meant doing something for myself. This is the part of the story that makes me somewhat uncomfortable sharing, but I decided to undergo elective breast augmentation. Prior to the surgery, I was required to undergo a mammogram. I did as I was told, and a small mass on my left breast was identified. I underwent a needle-guided biopsy, and as suspected, the mass was benign. Off I went to get my implants.

Fast-forward six months; I felt a very discreet pea-sized lump just under the surface of the skin. I didn’t remember it being there before; it immediately caught my attention. I waited it out for a menstrual cycle to see if it would go away (as a GYN I knew that some lumps and bumps come and go with our hormones). But a month later, it was still there—no change. It didn’t budge. But neither did I. I did have my gynecologist (and my colleague, fellow GYN, and best friend Jaime) feel it—we were both confident it was nothing. I mean, it was smooth and rubbery, and it moved: classic textbook description for a benign mass. Ironically, around the same time, I received a follow-up reminder to check on the benign left-sided cyst that was biopsied six months prior. Now I had two reasons to head back to the radiologist—it just seemed to make sense. One trip, two tests.

And what a trip it was. On this solo venture, I was given the most frightening news of my life. In the words of the radiologist who had performed the mammogram, “This is not normal, and it needs to be biopsied.” Despite my shock, I could piece a few words together and replied by saying, “Are you worried?” Stone-faced, she said, “I don’t know; that’s why we need to biopsy it.” Just then, the ultrasound technician joked about the size of the lump and its proximity to the implant: “The biopsy will probably burst the implant.” This was not a good experience, and it didn’t take me being a doctor to know that. I was not going back there.

I went home and did some research, and within 24 hours I had all my images transferred to a different radiologist. A couple of days later, I went in for both repeat imaging and a biopsy. Within 24 hours, my doctor called and gave me the news: “You have poorly differentiated invasive breast cancer.”  

It’s hard to put into words exactly how I felt at that minute, for the next several minutes, and for the next few days. There was so much that was unknown to me, even as a physician, and it was these unknowns that made it so incredibly frightening. How bad was it? How far had it spread? Will I recover? And through all the unknown and unanswerable questions, the pervading thought running through my head was, I have two young children who need me and who I want to see grow up.

That evening, my support team (my family and Jaime) came to my apartment, and we mobilized. We got names of breast surgeons, we made appointments, and together, we moved forward. A few days later, I had an MRI that suggested the tumor was localized to the breast. I found out that my receptor status was positive. (Breast cancers that are positive for estrogen and progesterone receptors have a better prognosis and respond to a medication called Tamoxifen, which can be used to lower a recurrence.) I was scheduled to undergo surgery with an excellent physician at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

I was given the option for a lumpectomy, a right-sided mastectomy, or double mastectomy. Although my surgeon eloquently explained that it was a very small tumor and I could undergo a small surgery, I had already made up my mind to go for the bilateral or double mastectomy. I mean, they weren’t real to begin with! At least this way, I didn’t have to go for frequent imaging of any remaining breast tissue. The last decision came down to the nipples, to take them or to leave them. Although for cosmetic reasons, keeping them would be a plus, I decided to part with them as well. After all, I’m a doctor not a breast model…

While I felt confident about the procedure and the surgeon, hurdles still lay in front of me. Would my lymph nodes be negative or positive for the cancer, and would my oncotyping (other gene profiles related to recurrence risk) be unfavorable? If yes, I would need chemotherapy following surgery.

But I got lucky. My news was good. There had been no spread to the lymph nodes. The invasive lesion was only 7mm, exactly the pimple-sized mass that I was feeling. However, in addition to the invasive lesion I had DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ; a.k.a. pre-cancer cells) throughout my entire right breast, including the nipple. When discussing these findings with my surgeon, she said, “Your intuition about taking the entire breast and the nipple out was right; if you would’ve opted to keep them, you would have needed another surgery.” The last piece of good news came about two weeks later, when my oncotyping returned as low risk; chemo was not needed.

Over the next three months, I went every one to two weeks to have my “tissue expanders” (the equivalent of an inflatable implant) inflated. Slowly, over time the skin stretches to accommodate the future implant. While it wasn’t necessarily painful, it was an odd sensation. I underwent the exchange surgery, in which the tissue expanders are removed and the permanent implant is placed, and I was left as I am today. The final step in this process is the third surgery to create a nipple, which I for now I will forego.

Medicine wise, I am on Tamoxifen, an anti-estrogen pill that impairs the ability of estrogen to bind to its receptors; it lowers my risk of a recurrence. My relationship with Tamoxifen won’t be short: I am scheduled to be on it for the next 10 years. And while it makes you a bit sweaty (think mild hot flashes), in my mind it is a small price to pay for lowering my cancer return risk.

It’s funny that, while I was embarrassed to undergo elective augmentation and admit it to anyone but my close friends, I truly do believe that those implants helped save my life. The implants are placed beneath the breast tissue. They pushed what little breast tissue I had (and my surgeon attested I was in the group with “lowest volume breast tissue but had cancer”) to the surface of my skin. A foreign object made me more aware of my native tissue. Ironic, huh?

According to the current guidelines and recommendations, I would not have had a mammogram for several years. I was not yet 40, I had no family history, and I was not a BRCA carrier. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends that yearly mammogram start at age 40; a breast exam is performed by a health care provider every one to three years (from age 20–39) and yearly after 40. Furthermore, while there have also been advances in mammography (digital mammography vs. traditional film mammography), MRIs for high-risk cases and ultrasounds for women with dense breasts are not routinely used on the “regular” no-risk patient. I was that totally “random” patient who would have been missed. Except for those implants…

In reviewing my case, as both a doctor and as a patient, I have tried to understand what went wrong. How was the lesion on my right breast missed on that first mammogram? First, mammograms are not foolproof. They are pretty good, but tumors can be missed, no matter who is reading them. In retrospect, it appears that my cancer was lateral (far out wide), and perhaps the first time, they did not get adequate views. Basically, they did not go far enough out. But while we can rehash the views and the images, it won’t change my outcome. What we should stress is the benefit of breast self-awareness and self-breast exams. Without them, I am not sure when I would have found the lesion, how big it would have been, or where I would be now.

I am not alone. One in eight women will get breast cancer, and most of us are going to be the “randoms.” We won’t be BRCA carriers, we may not have a family history, and there is a chance we will have no identifiable, real risk factors. All you can do to protect yourself is to be proactive and to follow preventative screening measures. The earlier a breast cancer is identified and treated, the better the patient will do. And unfortunately, many cases are still missed, despite diligent exams and other screening.

I share my story in hopes that maybe one woman or more will be prompted to do her own breast exam, go in for her long-overdue GYN appointment, or get her first mammogram. I’m not writing this for sympathy or pity. I am not a drama queen, and honestly, I’m not too fond of attention. However, by baring it all, I hope to shed light on why it is important to know your body, particularly your breasts. It could make the difference between life and death.

I often say I was dealt the “good cancer card.” Breast cancer is one of the few cancers we can detect early, with excellent survival rates. This is why every October is deemed #BreastCancerAwarenessMonth. While medicine is evolving and our cancer colleagues are making major strides, most cancers simply do not have the same prognosis as breast. This is why I am lucky. I am grateful every day that this was the card I was dealt and by a stroke of fateful events I felt this pea-sized lump. To my sisters out there battling more extensive disease—I send you my love and support. Together, we fight and raise awareness. No cancer diagnosis is in vain. We love, live, and learn more with each life affected.

Does Everything That Itches Equal Yeast? Vaginal Infections

When anything feels off down there, our mind usually goes to one place: yeast infection. No matter what the actual symptoms are, any discomfort seems to signal yeast. For whatever reason, for most of us vaginal discomfort reflexively equals yeast. And while some of us will call our GYN to get their take on what’s going on down there, most of us simply head over to the local Duane Reade or CVS for some sort of topical relief.

Whether you pick the one-day, the three-day, or the extended seven-day course, you leave with something to stop the itch, the burn, and the overall discomfort. It isn’t until your symptoms outlast the one-, three-, or seven-day regimen that you pick up the phone and call your doctor. It is usually here that you find out that not all burning, discharge, or itching is yeast—a.k.a. Monistat works, just not on a bacterial or urinary tract infection.

Here are some tips on how to know if yeast is really the culprit…

  1. Discharge: While most of us associate vaginal discharge with some sort of problem or infection, news flash: a healthy vagina also secretes vaginal discharge. However, the latter is usually odorless, fairly clear, and doesn’t make you think or wipe twice! An infection, be it yeast, bacteria, or something else, will cause the discharge to change color, content, and quantity. While yeast is routinely associated with white, clumped (cottage cheese-like) discharge, discharge that is green or yellow is more commonly seen in bacterial infections (e.g., bacterial vaginosis or Trichomoniasis). And taking it one step further, urinary tract infections (which are often misdiagnosed as a yeast infection) will likely cause no change in the quantity or quality of the vaginal discharge. Bottom line, what the discharge looks like may “color” our diagnosis of what is causing your vaginal discomfort.
  2. Odor: Nobody wants to smell bad…especially down there! So, when something smells off, it should signal you that something is not right. However, that “not right” does not mean a yeast infection. Here’s the deal. A normal vaginal pH is about 3.8 to 4.5. Infections can alter the pH and change the vaginal odor. Select bacteria (think bacterial vaginosis, a.k.a. BV) can result in foul-smelling vaginal discharge. And although yeast can alter the pH, it doesn’t usually have a significant impact on vaginal odor. Therefore, when the odor seems way off you are likely dealing with something else.
  3. Itching: Vaginal itching and yeast infections sort of go hand in hand. In fact, this is the symptom that sends most of us straight to the drugstore. But while yeast is the infection that is most likely to cause an itching sensation, the vaginal mucosa, just like your skin, is sensitive to changes in body washes, soaps, and detergents. The same sort of itching that can occur on your arms, legs, stomach, and face when you change detergent or add a new skin care product can happen to your vagina. Before prescribing yourself Monistat, think about what has changed in your hygiene routine, and make sure that it is not what’s making you itch!
  4. Abdominal Pain: Most vaginal infections are limited to the vulva and the vagina. They rarely make their way to the cervix, the uterus, the tubes, and into the pelvis/abdomen. However, some sexually transmitted diseases (think chlamydia and gonorrhea) can move. They are frequent trespassers in the pelvis and pelvic organs. Therefore, when abdominal pain is accompanying your vaginal discharge the culprit is more likely to be a bug that can do damage on the inside as well as the outside rather than your garden-variety yeast. However, the pathogens that can move can do some major damage (e.g., infertility) if they are not treated.
  5. Fever: While most vaginal infections are super annoying, that won’t make you super sick. Therefore, when a woman reports a fever as well as vaginal discharge we start to think of things like gonorrhea, chlamydia, and even an infection in the kidneys. If your temperature goes up, you should get up and go right to your doctor!
  6. Pain with Urination: Although vaginal discomfort can make urinating super uncomfortable, pain with urination is usually the tell-tale sign of a urinary tract infection. Add to that urinary frequency and urgency (a.k.a. I have to go right now!), and urinary discomfort is more likely to be from a urinary tract infection rather than a vaginal infection.

So, while we all love to play Dr. Google not everything can be solved without a visit to a doctor. Not everything that itches, burns, or makes you feel uncomfortable is a yeast infection. Make sure you take note of everything that you are feeling. If your discharge comes with any one of the above, Monistat is not going to make it go away. Go and see your GYN!

 

“Judgey” Eyes: What Are Embryologists Really Looking At?

How do I look in this dress? What do you think of these shoes? Is red a good color for me? Let’s face it: even the most down-to-earth among us has an inner diva. Who doesn’t want to look good and turn some heads? Furthermore, how we look on the outside can impact the way we feel on the inside. While we’re certainly not saying that looks matter, we are saying that how you think you look often impacts the way you feel. The same can be said for your embryos. How they look to the embryologist in the lab can tell us a lot about their health, their genetics, and their ability to make a baby.

While different labs use different grading systems, most that perform day 5 or 6 embryo transfers use the Gardner and Schoolcraft embryo scoring system. This dynamic duo introduced their scoring system in 1999 to determine blastocyst (day 5 or 6 embryo) quality.

And while it’s certainly not the Miss USA competition, embryologists are grading the embryos in three ways: development and morphology (don’t worry; we can count). Morphology is assessed for both inner cell mass and the trophectoderm, bringing the total to three!

Embryologists are looking for things like embryo expansion, cell compaction/tightness, and cohesiveness. Years of experience and tons of training have trained their eyes to be really judge-y and label these areas with letters and numbers. We don’t give an overall number; it’s more of a general impression! The cumulative score determines which embryos have the potential to wear the crown. The scoring system not only helps embryologists and fertility doctors decide which embryos to transfer but also how many embryos to transfer. Those with straight As should have a limited number of embryos transferred to avoid an octo-mom situation.

Remember, just like undergrad universities, some grade inflation may go on. An A at Harvard may be a B at Yale—grading is subjective. (Just sayin’. And no, neither of us went to Harvard or Yale). Therefore, while a patient may make all A+ embryos in lab #1, when they come to lab #2, the report card can be totally different. Usually, this is not because your eggs or your partner’s sperm went over the cliff, but because the scoring was skewed. Skewed scoring doesn’t decrease one’s chances; it just messes with one’s expectations. If you have an A+ embryo, you’ll think this is a slam dunk. If it’s really a C, you won’t expect to win the science prize.

Unfortunately, even those with the “judgiest” of eyes can’t discern a trisomy 21 from a 46XY. Visually, they look pretty much the same. Aneuploid (genetically abnormal embryos) clean up well; they can look just as handsome when it’s time for their big date. Cue modern day PGS (pre-genetic screening). PGS has allowed us to distinguish between those who have natural beauty and those who are caking on the makeup. By subjecting the embryo to genetic screening, we can take embryo selection and success rates to the next level. We know a lot more about their abilities to make a healthy baby and the reasons why IVF cycles work or don’t work.

For the type As among us (we’re both raising our hands, so you’re not alone!) we lived and died by our grades. We burned the midnight oil to get the coveted A in Chemistry and logged many sleepless nights for the Honors on our English paper. However, grades don’t mean everything. In the same regard, there are several modest-quality embryos that make the most beautiful, smartest, and kick-butt kids.

So, while we totally get your hangup with the grade, don’t obsess. It won’t change the outcome and will only increase your anxiety. You’ve studied as hard as you can; the rest is in our hands!

Wine = Whine

We’ve all been there. The incessant instances of “No,” “I don’t wanna go,” and “Mama…,” whether it’s at the 5 o’clock witching hour or the 1 o’clock I don’t want to take a nap, these sounds are less than pleasant. Like nails on a chalkboard, the longer it goes on, the more it drives you insane. It drives your blood pressure up and takes you to a place that can only be made better by some time alone and a sizeable glass of rosé! Let’s face it: they whine, you want wine.

Motherhood isn’t easy. It’s non-stop, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week work. And unlike any other job, you can’t clock out, you don’t get paid, and there’s no such thing as overtime. And no matter how badly you wanted this “job” or how long you took to perfect your “resume” (a.k.a. did whatever it took to have a baby), there are many times when you want to quit. We know…we feel it too.

Although we can’t offer you a break room, we can offer you a few words of advice. When you’re all whined out, take a moment and step away. Whether it’s for some deep breaths, a quick workout, or a glass of wine, do something that will help you reset. Stepping out of the moment rather than stepping into the drama will let you come back to the scene in a whole different headspace.  

But when all else fails and your self-inflicted time out doesn’t do the trick, pick up the phone. Call your BFF, and let it all out. The more you share, the less isolated you’ll feel. Community and camaraderie can be more powerful than any cocktail you concoct. Verbalizing your feelings to a peer can prevent you from loudly vocalizing (a.k.a. yelling) your frustration to your kids. So, while a phone call may seem second best to a glass of wine, “pouring” out your emotions can be pretty powerful.

Cheers!

Take a Bite Out of This: What Your Teeth Could Be Doing to the Rest of the Body

There may be no bigger hassle than a dental problem. A root canal, an implant, a denture, or a chipped tooth: it’s all a big pain and a big hit to your bank account. And unfortunately, as we age so do our teeth. Just like your ovaries, they have been present for all your bad decisions. The sweets, the “oops, I forget to brush and floss,” and the endless packs of gum have taken their toll. (Trust us, we know, we do it too!) And while it may come as a shock to you, what’s going on your mouth may be a barometer for what’s going on in the rest of your body.

Oral health disorders like periodontal disease (a medical way of saying “gum disease”) have been associated with problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, respiratory infections, and even preterm labor. Inflammation in the gums can lead to inflammation in other parts of the body. Picture this—bacteria make their way into the body through the gums. The gums have lots of blood vessels. Blood vessels act like a shuttle transporting bacteria throughout the body. Wherever they land, they bring inflammation. Inflammation in the blood vessels can cause the blood vessels to narrow. Narrow blood vessels cause blood flow to slow down and clots to form. Such clots increase the risk for heart attack and stroke. Because women post-menopause are already at increased risk for heart disease due to age and other medical risk factors, you don’t want to add to it by introducing gum disease and inflammation.

But there is more to the teeth’s story than gum inflammation and bacteria. After menopause, estrogen levels drop. This drop not only causes hot flashes and vaginal dryness but also the loss of bone in the jaw. Bone loss can lead to loose teeth and tooth loss. And unfortunately, when you lose a tooth at 55, there is no tooth fairy—just a lot of dental bills and inconvenience!

On top of the age and decreased estrogen part, medications that are used for osteoporosis have been linked to osteonecrosis (a.k.a. bone decay). And while this is very rare and most often seen in women with cancer who are on high-dose bisphosphonates, it is important to give your dentist frequent updates on your medication list so that your dental work is scheduled appropriately.

To make matters a little more distasteful, menopause and its hormonal fluctuations can also bring oral discomfort. Post-menopausal women report changes in their taste perceptions and dry mouth. And your gums feel it, too. Receding gums and sensitive gums are not uncommon.

Age gets us all over. From your hair and skin to your bones and toes, time takes a toll. Your teeth didn’t want to be left out! To decrease damage, the American Dental Association recommends that you make a trip to see your dentist twice a year. And for your homework, they suggest daily brushing and flossing. Also, limiting sugary foods and things that stick is a sure-fire way to improve your dental health.

So, don’t follow the nearly 35% of US women who did not see a dentist last year. Make an appointment to get those pearly whites (or at this point, some shade of white) checked out. You will be doing your whole body good.