How many of you can remember playing superheroes when you were a kid? Running around with your friends zapping, ka-powing, and bamming the bad guys was a fairly typical afternoon in the life of a child. Whether you were Wonder Woman or Super Girl, you probably kicked butt (and was pretty good at concocting the most awesome of superpowers).
Fast-forward nearly 30 years. Although you probably don’t play superheroes anymore (although we wouldn’t judge if you did!), if given the chance to have a superpower, we bet you could come up with a pretty long list. As fertility specialists and women who know how hard it can be to fit in careers and baby making, our greatest superpower would be to stop the inevitable biological clock: the decline in egg quality and quantity that happens as you age.
From the moment you make your debut into this world, it’s a downhill process. And for years, there was nothing anyone could do about it. Your ovaries didn’t really care what you ate, where you lived, and if you exercised—they were like a typical teenager (headstrong and independent). They just kept on going in a downhill fashion. And while they still don’t care, we have found a way to instill some discipline into them.
Cue egg freezing. While egg freezing has been around for nearly 30 years, it didn’t become mainstream until about five years ago. Around this time, it gained serious popularity and notoriety. With research, data, and the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) removing the experimental label from egg freezing, more and more women signed up for the procedure. Nowadays, the press and social media are all over egg freezing. And taking it one step further, some companies now even cover the cost of egg freezing (e.g., Facebook, Apple)—its become pretty prevalent.
Why, you may ask, are women electively shooting themselves up with hormones, waking up at the crack of dawn for vaginal ultrasounds, and having a needle put in their vagina? All good questions…and here’s why. Because egg freezing may save your fertility and your chance of having a genetic child. The eggs you store today may make you a mother in the future when egg quality and egg quantity have taken a serious downturn. Nothing, with the exception of egg freezing, can halt the decline of ovarian reserve that occurs over time.
Although pregnancy, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), thyroid disease, too much exercise, eating disorders, and the pill may show your periods the red light, they will do nothing in terms of stopping the loss of eggs. The only thing that can show this process the yellow light is egg freezing.
If you want to freeze your eggs, don’t let fear about how long it will take you and what the process will do to your body and mind hold you back. All in all, egg freezing is a pretty quick and painless process (we need no more than about two weeks of your life before we can get those eggs into the freezer). Yes, you will need to give yourself shots. Yes, you will need to cut back on your exercise. Yes, you will have some transient weight gain, and yes, you will need to set your alarm an hour or so earlier than usual. Overall, though, it’s pretty tolerable.
Most women start the injectable fertility medications on day two or three of their period. The shots are administered twice a day for usually about 10 days; their primary job is supposed to help your body produce multiple follicles (a.k.a. eggs). Think of the shots as the gas fueling the development of the eggs present in your ovaries at the start of the menstrual cycle. They get them all going. But we can only put in as much gas as the tank will allow; if your starting antral follicle count (a.k.a. AFC) is 10, more medication will not make more eggs. Your baseline, or AFC, is a measurement of your underlying reserve. Simply stated, those with more will have more eggs retrieved; those with less will have less retrieved. Here, there is no funny math.
However, while a car needs fuel to get going, we don’t want to overfill the tank. The same goes for the ovaries and the dose of fertility hormones. Too high of a dose can be dangerous and can result in overstimulation. Too low of dose will keep you idling in the parking lot. For this reason, your doctor will probably want to see you every other day for ultrasound exams or blood checks to make sure that your ovaries are running but not racing.
Once the follicles reach a certain size (usually about 17–19 mm), and the estrogen level is at a specific peak (we like to see about 150–200 pg/mL of estrogen/follicle), you will likely be instructed to take your “trigger” shot. This shot is either human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG ) (brand names: Novarel or Ovidrel) or Lupron (or a combo of both). It will prepare the follicles/eggs for the final stages of development needed to achieve maturity (remember only mature eggs can be fertilized in the future). The eggs will be extracted (a.k.a. retrieved) vaginally. That means a needle will puncture the vaginal wall, enter the ovary/follicle, and out comes the egg within the follicular fluid. The whole procedure takes no more than 20–30 minutes, although to you it will feel like seconds (this is the part you will be sleeping for). When you open your eyes, most will be relaxing in the recovery room snacking on graham crackers and apple juice. On occasion, the pain can be severe, but this is definitely not the norm!
Unlike most things that sit in your freezer, your eggs never really go bad. They can remain frozen until you are ready to defrost them; there is no expiration date. And while their Ice Age can be long, it’s important to remember that at some point you may no longer want to be pregnant. While women can carry pregnancies well into their forties and even fifties, the complications do increase as women age. This doesn’t mean that you have to freeze and thaw ASAP, but it does mean you need to make a personal timeline about when they will be used.
Although the sperm thing may seem like a problem, don’t let this part stand in your way. Your eggs can be fertilized with partnered sperm or donor sperm—it’s totally up to you. In either case, the eggs will be thawed and inseminated in a process called ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection). The resulting embryos will be grown in the laboratory, and the best embryo (s) will be selected for transfer about five days later. Any remaining high quality embryos can be frozen for future use.
Although egg freezing is good, it’s most certainly not perfect and is in no way a guarantee. It is not even a really good insurance policy. The success rates after egg freezing are never better than about 50–55% (and this is in women less than 35 years old). In the over-40 age group, it’s really no greater than about 15%. We say this not to bum you out but to bring reality to the situation. Egg freezing is expensive and a commitment. So before you drop some serious dough and time, you should know what you are doing and how much it can do for you. Egg freezing is a big decision—your doctor should go through it in detail before you sign on the dotted line.
While we may still lose to villains, we are getting stronger and stronger each day. Not only are more women choosing to freeze their eggs, but even more importantly, more women are also becoming aware of what will happen to their fertility, particularly their eggs, over time. Beating the “bad guys” is way more about brain power than muscle power—if you know what you are fighting, you will be able to devise a pretty awesome plan to beat them. Freezing your eggs may not be one of your weapons, but knowing about the process and the process of egg loss will ensure that you are not a victim of a surprise attack.