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Where to Place Your Bet: The Difference Between Egg and Embryo Freezing

Who doesn’t love a good pre-game? Standing in a parking lot with the sun beating down on your back, relaxing with your friends: life couldn’t be better. While you may don a Giants jersey and your friend Eagles green, your pregame rituals are pretty much the same. Good food, good drinks, good times. When you enter the stadium, that’s when things start to change.

The same can be said for the difference between freezing eggs and freezing embryos. The “pre-game” part is pretty much the same—you take injectable gonadotropins (hormones) on a daily (sometimes twice daily) basis. This doesn’t change whether you are freezing eggs or embryos. Additionally, in both cases the medications and the morning visits will most likely start with the start of your period and go on for about 10 days. Therefore, in terms of the stimulation (a.k.a. the pre-game process) the two are pretty much the same. It is not until the eggs are retrieved that you run to opposite sides of the field.

If you’re rooting for team egg freeze, here’s what your game plan will look like once we start to play ball. Shortly after the eggs are retrieved, they will be evaluated for their stage of development (mature versus immature). Those that are mature will be frozen immediately. And this is where the information about your eggs and your fertility ends. You will know nothing more about your frozen friends other than quantity. We cannot tell how many will be “good” (a.k.a. make a baby) and how many will be bad (a.k.a. do nothing). But as most American possessions go, the more, the better. Women who have more eggs frozen will have a better chance of pregnancy from them in the future.

And in the blue corner, we have team embryo freezing! For those that choose to embryo freeze, after the eggs are extracted they will be fertilized with sperm. The resultant embryos will then be watched over the next several days in the laboratory. How they grow, how they divide, and how they develop is very telling for their health. Some, if not several, will drop off along the way—those that can’t hack it in the lab would definitely not hack it in the uterus.

In many ways, the lab is like the ultimate test of survival, or natural selection. At the end of the game, you may only have a few players on the field, but these players are tough, resilient, and really know how to play the game. They have weathered the storm and are your true MVPs.

In many ways, egg freezing is like drafting a player who has demonstrated potential in college but has not yet played in the big leagues. They should be good, but you can’t know for sure. It’s also hard to survey the newbies in spring training and know who and how many superstars you’ll have at the end of the season.

In the same vein, if your ovarian reserve tests are normal and there are no red flags in your medical history, you should have some good potential in your eggs. Embryo freezing is like signing a player who has already won rookie of the year. You know more about the player’s (a.k.a. embryos’) ability to hit it out of the park because they have already been vetted. Take it one step further…if your embryos undergo PGS (also called CCS or TE biopsy—the chromosomal analysis of embryos), we have even more information about their ability to make a baby. You have vetted them in the most aggressive way possible.

For many women, embryo freezing is not even an option. Unless you have a partner or chose to use donor sperm, without a sperm source, you can’t make embryos. The lack of sperm and the ability to make embryos are NOT a bad thing AT ALL! And we definitely don’t recommend using donor sperm just to make embryos and have more information about your egg quality. In these situations, egg freezing is totally the way to go! Additionally, even if you have a partner, egg freezing may be a better option for you. Not to be Debbie Downers, but nearly half of all relationships end in divorce. So be careful about who you mix your gametes with!

If you are even thinking about freezing, be it eggs or embryos, you’re being proactive. You are several steps ahead of the game. It’s like you’re planning your roster months before opening day! Either way you do it, you’re giving yourself options and choice. And that’s really why you did this in the first place. So however you get on the field, you are here to play ball—go, girl, go!

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: What to Do When Your First IVF Treatment Fails

Can’t stop, won’t stop; it’s not for nothing that this may be one of our favorite sayings. As overplayed as it might be and as trite as it might sound, it’s pretty much how we aim to live our lives, how we chose to tackle our challenges, and how we hope to make it to the end of a marathon. We push each other, we push ourselves, and we push ahead to get to OUR end.

But life is not a race, and there is no set finish line (except for the obvious one that we won’t harp on). How you end your day, how you end your career, and how you end any struggle in many ways is up to you. You set the start line, the halftime, and the finish line. Much can also be said for how many rounds of fertility treatment you decide to do and how long you continue to try for a baby.

Knowing when to call it quits can be nearly impossible. Whether professionally or personally, it’s hard to know when enough is enough. In terms of fertility treatment, specifically IVF cycles, how much is too much? How many is too many? When do you move on to something else?

A recent study from England published in a very prominent medical journal (JAMA) recently addressed this question. It got a whole lot of press and found its way into the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and all of the morning talk shows. It basically showed that women who hung in the game were more likely to get pregnant—quitting after a couple of failed IVF cycles was not the right move. Although they didn’t find a magic cutoff number after which patients should be told to exit stage left, they did find that nearly 70% of women under the age of 40 got pregnant after six IVF cycles. While about 30% of women got pregnant on the first cycle, many took longer to cross their finish line.

The results were less promising for women older than 40; while they also got pregnant at a higher rate after more IVF cycles, the total number did not exceed 30%. Bottom line, even though this study got as much press as a Kardashian wedding, it’s important not to misanalyze the data.

This study is NOT giving the green light to endless IVF and fertility treatments. This study is NOT saying that multiple IVF cycles are always the way to go. This study is NOT saying everyone who does multiple IVF cycles will get pregnant. This study is simply saying that, if you can emotionally, physically, and financially (unfortunately, finances come into play big time) swallow the treatment AND your doctor believes you are a good candidate, it’s okay to keep on keeping on.

Knowing when to bow out is nearly impossible. Unfortunately, there is no magic number. But here’s the CliffsNotes version from girls in the know… For starters, we use age, pregnancy history, and ovarian reserve testing to decide when enough is enough; these initial parameters can shed a lot of light about what’s to come.

Additionally, we use IVF response as a gauge of how much gas you have left in the tank—are you responding to medications, are you producing follicles, is your estrogen level rising?

Last, we use embryo development and, if available, embryo genetic testing results (PGS/CCS/TE biopsy, which tests for aneuploidy) to help patients decide whether further treatment is a go. For example, if patients have done several IVF cycles without any viable or normal embryos, we are hard pressed to recommend continued fertility treatments with your own eggs. And while no, history doesn’t always repeat itself, in these cases, it comes pretty close.

We are not dictators, czars, fortune tellers, or goddesses (although we wish we were)—and we are not afraid to admit that. We can’t tell you that more will be better; it may just cost more money, cause more physical discomfort, and evoke more emotional anguish. But quitting too early can be a real shame.

Just like in sports (from two women that love to pound the pavement!), there should always be a day for rest, always a moment to breathe, and always a time to stop. Without a break, you get injured. Without a day to sleep in, you get fatigued, and without days off from work, you get frustrated. In cases where there is no definable finish line for you or your partner, you may need your doctor to help you set it. When you collectively find that line in the sand, be careful not to step over it. Things will start to sink quickly on the other side.

The Art and Science of IVF

As first-year medical students sitting in the back of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine lecture hall, we had no idea what to expect from the Art and Science of Medicine course. We all thought of ourselves as scientists (I mean, this was medical school!). Art was far from most of our minds. Questions like “What will this class be like?,” “Will it be lecture-based or textbook-based?,” and “Will the exams be graded or simply marked Pass or Fail?” flooded our minds. In typical Jaime and Sheeva fashion, poised with pens in our hands (we were both ferocious note takers!), we were ready to transcribe every word uttered by the lecturer to soak up and eventually memorize every piece of data shared. However, what followed surprised us: we would not be note taking, we would not be studying, and we would not be test taking.

We would learn about the art of medicine.

Art and medicine may strike some of you as odd. It did us! Medicine is a practice rooted in science and data, not color or design. The people you knew who became doctors did it because they liked facts, not pictures. However, in reality, how we diagnose a disease, how we treat a problem, and how we formulate a plan are really an art. The many available imaging modalities, medications, and surgical procedures are our colors. How we blend them to get the best outcome for you, the patient, is our art.

For fertility doctors, ovarian stimulation in particular (a.k.a. how you get the ovaries to produce multiple eggs) is our art. What protocol we select for a patient, when we increase and decrease medications, and how to obtain the highest percentage of mature, good-quality eggs is our art (not to be confused with ART= assisted reproductive technology!). Sure, we have scientific data to guide us in our decisions, but what can make one IVF cycle more successful than the other has a lot to do with the art of ovarian stimulation. And we bring you back day after day for blood draw after blood draw and ultrasound after ultrasound not because we like to torture you but because it helps us customize your design, your art.

Don’t get us wrong. There is a lot of science in what we do. The laboratory is our science. The embryologists, the culture system, and the genetic testing are science. And without the science, our art is just some strokes on a blank canvas. It takes both, the art and the science, to treat a patient and to achieve success in all areas of medicine.

So, if you ever wonder why we do what do and how we decide on treatment protocols, they are our art. And when they are combined with science, it can make a beautiful picture!

Round and Round You Go: We Hope It Stops Where You Want to Go!

Unfortunately, it is more the norm for us to see or hear about couples (and individuals) that have undergone years of fertility treatments without success. Month after month, they take medications, inject themselves with hormones, and hold their breath as they wait for the pregnancy test results. For many of these patients, be it for medical reasons, financial reasons, insurance reasons, or misguided reasons, there is little that is changed between the negative cycles. We like to call this the merry-go-round effect: couples/individuals who continue the same ineffective treatments month after month without redirecting or reanalyzing the situation. It’s a bad situation that we want to help you change.

Let’s face it: after the same treatment, be it timed intercourse, oral medications, inseminations, or IVF, has failed continuously, something needs to change. Whether it be moving on to more aggressive treatments (or, as we say, stepping up the ladder!), tweaking the current protocol, or seeking a second opinion, you need to shake things up. There are many available fertility treatments that can be, and likely should be, utilized.

A patient-doctor relationship should be a partnership with give and take, as well as back and forth. Gone are the paternalistic days of medicine where the doctor speaks and the patient listens. Treatment decisions should no longer be dictated, but rather, discussed. If this is not happening for you and you find yourself in the merry-go-round rut, then you need to put the brakes on. Make a phone call, send an email, or sit down with your doctor to review your case. Bring your list of questions, and ask away.

If you don’t like the answers, don’t be afraid to take them and your struggles elsewhere. At some point, you have to either ask the attendant to stop the ride or simply hop off. Eventually, circling in the same direction stops being fun, exciting, or promising; it also makes you nauseous, dizzy, and loopy!

So be your own advocate, and shut this ride down. The park is huge, with so many more rides and adventures to explore.

How Old Is Too Old? The Age Limit for Pregnancy

We have all heard the stories, seen the headlines, and talked about it over the water cooler on Monday morning: “66-year-old woman delivers twins,” “65-year-old woman delivers quadruplets,” and most recently, “72-year-old woman delivers baby” (that last one really made us stop in our tracks)! It gets us talking and gets us thinking: How old is too old for a woman to have a baby? Is pregnancy in your 60s really healthy? Is it fair for a child to be born to parents who are 60?

The questions are endless. And although we are not advocating for Congress to raise the age for Social Security or cut Medicare benefits, we do believe (as does the American Society of Reproductive Medicine) that at some point we all must throw in our reproductive towel. Here’s why.

Let’s start by shedding light on how we women in our 50s and beyond (as well as most women in their late 40s) conceive. In nearly all cases, the pregnancies have been achieved with donated eggs. By the time we hit our mid-40s, our egg supply has pretty much gone kaput. And the ones that are still hanging around often lack the ability to make a healthy embryo.

But while the ovaries have waved goodbye to most things fertility, the uterus is still hanging on. It is like that friend you had growing up who could be dared to do anything (you know the kind we’re talking about… “Dare you to eat a worm…”). The uterus is sort of a pushover for anything with estrogen and progesterone. However, like your middle school friend, just because it will do it doesn’t mean it should do it.

There are guidelines released by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (they’re sort of like the fertility FBI) suggesting at what age people should and should not be pregnant (no matter how willing their uterus is!). This is what they have to say:

“Physicians should obtain a complete medical evaluation before deciding to attempt transfer of embryos to any woman over age 50. Embryo transfer should be strongly discouraged or denied to any woman over age 50 with underlying issues that could increase or further obstetrical risks and discouraged in women over age 55 without any issues.” (ASRM Ethics Committee)

Let us translate. What they are really saying is that it’s okay to attempt pregnancy in women over the age of 50 as long as they have really, really clean bills of health. It is not okay to transfer embryos, no matter how clean their bill of health, if they are over the age of 55. And while they don’t have your phones wired and your Internet tapped, even if you as the doctor or the patient don’t get “caught” doing this, if you violate the rules, you could get hurt.

Pregnancy complications increase markedly as women age. It can be a pretty dangerous nine months for both mother and baby. In medicine, when the risks start to approach the benefits, you have to seriously stop and consider what you are doing. Donor egg pregnancies in women who are above the age of 55 are one of those times. There is an increased risk of pre-eclampsia (pregnancy-induced high blood pressure), gestational diabetes, low fetal birth weight and, in some studies, fetal mortality. Additionally, nearly three quarters of the babies born to woman above the age of 50 are delivered via C-Section—and while we all think of a C-Section as nothing, it is a major surgical procedure.

Pregnancy is somewhat of a conundrum for us doctors. It is the first time and the only time that you have two patients AT ONCE (in the same body!). It is not only difficult medically but also ethically. Donor egg pregnancies in women who are older than 50 bring up the “fair-to-child” debate. This topic is more controversial than who you voted for this election season.

Let’s just say it’s a good thing there are curtains at the polling places and in doctor’s offices—privacy is key! And while medical ethicists could debate this topic for hours (similar to MSNBC and Fox re: presidential candidates) citing studies and data points on both ends, the bottom line is that no one really knows the answer.

There are those who say that it is not uncommon for grandparents to raise grandchildren, to provide economic support to the family/children, and to serve as the parents in a family unit, so what’s the big deal with women getting pregnant in their 50s? Is it sexist to limit a woman’s ability to have a child while allowing older men to keep on keeping on, no matter how old they are? Shouldn’t women be given the same opportunity as men?

On the flip side, there are those who argue that older parents can’t meet the physical and emotional demands of raising a child. And furthermore, there is a fairly good chance that the child will lose one or both parents at a young age—how can losing a parent or parent (s) before adulthood be fair to a child?

It’s a pretty intense debate. And while all the speaking points may get muddled in your head and you don’t really know whose side you are on, what is important to remember is the following: our jobs as MDs is to keep you informed and healthy. If we think something could hurt you, no matter how badly you want a baby, we must hold up a big flashing STOP sign. While we want to make you a parent and help you build a family, our primary duty is to keep you healthy.

When we say no, it is not because we are being ageists, it’s because we are being “aware-ists.” We are aware of what could go wrong and don’t want to see this happen to you. We won’t play truth or dare with your health. Trust us, no dare is worth it.

Putting Out the Fire: Endometriosis Treatment

Living in New York City, we don’t usually see those forest fires some of you ladies see out West. While we watch it on TV and read about it on the Internet, those days and days of blazes are something of a foreign concept to us. However, what we have taken away from those images are the hoses upon hoses and the buckets upon buckets that those firefighters must use to quell those flames.

Endometriosis (a.k.a. endo) is to your pelvis as a big forest fire is to California. If it is not put out quickly, it can be devastating. The good news is that, just as the firefighters have many tools in their truck, we too have several potential treatment options.

For women who do not have babies on the brain, there are many “hoses” that can help put out your fire. You have both medical and surgical options. When fertility is not in the near future, shutting your own system off medically with hormonal therapy is no big deal. Most GYNs will recommend that you start basic (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents/NSAIDs plus hormonal contraceptives).

Go big only when the fire continues to rage. NSAIDs combined with continuous hormonal contraceptives (continuous birth control pills) are usually pretty good at putting out “smaller fires” (mild/moderate endometriosis). It doesn’t matter if you prefer the oral, vaginal, or skin (a.k.a. patch) route for hormonal treatment. They all work the same, and here, it is more a matter of preference than potency. If estrogen is out because of a medical contraindication (clots, smoking etc.), then progesterone can be given in isolation with NSAIDs.

If this concoction is not keeping your symptoms quiet, we start climbing the treatment ladder. Our next step is usually a GnRH agonist (cue Lupron) combo’d with add-back hormonal therapy (estrogen and progesterone). If this doesn’t bring things to a halt, we usually give aromatase inhibitors (think Femara) a try. The aromatase inhibitors work by decreasing circulating estrogens in the body.  Estrogen is like gasoline to the endo fire. It doesn’t take a firefighter to tell you that it’s probably not a good idea to throw gasoline on a fire!

One treatment is not necessarily better than another. Some just work better in certain people. What is different is how they are administered (oral, injection), how frequently they must be taken (daily, weekly, monthly), and how much they cost (a little vs. a lot!). You have to see what works best for you and your symptoms.

When medical treatment isn’t cutting it, surgery is an option—no pun intended. We try to reserve the bigger guns for the bigger flames; starting with surgery is usually not a good idea. In general, the basic tenant of endo is to max out on medical treatment and avoid repeat surgeries—repeat trips to the operating room do not earn you frequent flier miles. It just earns you a lot of scar tissue, a lot of risk, and a lot of anesthesia. It’s not something you want to do.

If you do find yourself needing to make that trip down the runway, make sure your pilot has been around the block several times—no first-timers here. Endo surgery is no walk in the park; you want your surgeon to be experienced.

Gynecology has gained a couple of new subdivisions in the past few years. There are now GYNs who spend years after their residency learning how to do endo surgery. Their second home is in the operating room. Let’s just say that, when you need a tour, they should be the ones to do it! There are a variety of surgical procedures that can relieve your symptoms. The specifics are above the scope of our conversation, but what you do need to know is the following. Know your surgeon, know why they are doing what they are doing, and know how many times they have done what they are suggesting you do. Trust us; it’s super important.

No two fires are exactly alike. Similarly, no two cases of endo are exactly alike. While for some, pain is the biggest problem, for others, it is GI symptoms. Because of the variability in symptoms, in severity, and in life plans (fertility vs. no fertility), the treatment plan that “puts out your fire” will likely vary. What gets you going or stops your endo from growing may be different than what helped your sister or what helps your BFF.

Although we probably won’t ever treat you, we can recommend that you treat yourself with the utmost respect. Be aware of your symptoms and what makes them better or worse. Have your GYN on speed dial—don’t tell them we told you that!—and tell them when things are not going so well. And while we don’t recommend you ringing them on weekends and in the nighttime unless urgent, you should feel comfortable calling them. If their answers are not cutting it, don’t be afraid to remove them from your contacts and find a different doctor.

Unfortunately, endo is a chronic condition. Once the treatment hoses are turned off, the fire will likely return. After your baby days are done, you may elect to undergo definitive surgical treatment (a.k.a. a hysterectomy and bilateral salpingo-oophrectomy: simply stated, ovaries, tubes, and uterus out) to ensure that you never face another forest fire. Until then, let us help you temporize the flames so that you can fight whatever fires, be it professionally or personally, that you choose to extinguish. There is nothing you can’t put out if you put your mind to it!

Acceptance

Weather has a mind, a plan, and a path of its own. No matter how many times we open our weather app, if it’s going to rain, it will rain. We can’t will it away, wish it away, or watch it away (although you can go away and avoid it). It is the ultimate in uncontrollable. For all of us who have planned an outdoor wedding, an outdoor event, or have been derailed at an airport because of weather, you know what we’re talking about. To put it simply, battling uncontrollable elements sucks. Watching and waiting is beyond unnerving. But this is not a piece about the weather; we are for sure no meteorologists. It is about accepting the seemingly unacceptable, making peace with a fate you never dreamed, and learning to work through the discomfort to find a new calm.

On the surface, the connection may be hazy. However, that awful feeling of “I have no control” combined with “I have no idea what will happen” is not dissimilar to what you feel when trying to get pregnant, especially when it isn’t working. And while we are certainly not equating the weather to whether you’ll have a baby (we get how different they are), we are highlighting the similarities in the emotions we feel in situations that we can’t control.

When the pregnancy thing is not coming easily, the first emotion is usually shock. We have heard many a patient say, “I thought I just had sex and it happened. What is going on? Why is this not working?” The reality is that getting pregnant can be really hard. It can be really frustrating, exhausting, and frightening. In this situation, thoughts like “Will I ever be a mother?” run through one’s head on auto-repeat constantly throughout the day.

Additionally, our inabilities to will a baby into our belly can make us angry—angry with yourself, your partner, your friends (especially those that seem to get pregnant when they just look at their partner), and your doctor. These emotions are common and normal. Everything you feel, say, and want to scream is totally legit—for lack of better words, this sh-t sucks.

While we can give you a ton of advice about fertility, a lot of advice about GYN, and a good amount of advice on OB, what we can’t tell you is how to let the anger, frustration, and I-am-so-pissed-off-right-now emotions go. For each of us, it’s different. For some, it’s time. For others, it’s distance; for still others, it’s change. But whatever it is and for whatever amount of time it takes, when you finally arrive, it will be liberating. Acceptance of what previously may have seemed unacceptable will allow you to no longer stand still or move backwards but in fact take a leap forwards. The freedom to let it go is empowering and energizing—with this release, you have the strength to tackle your next steps.

Most women struggling with infertility probably never wanted to undergo fertility treatments, let alone talk to their GYN about why things were not working out. They never imagined doing IVF, let alone something like egg donation or a gestational carrier. The realization of where you are in relation to where you wanted to be can be mind-boggling.

And while we are certainly not minimizing your emotions or making light or your situation, we are hoping to push you forward. As your pacers, we know what awaits you at the finish line. We can see the end way sooner than you can because we have run this race alongside many other women many other times. We have some serious experience on this course and know its ins and outs, turns and curves. We want to guide you to the finish and achieve the dream of parenthood.

There may be no bigger control freaks than us at Truly, MD. Admittedly, we too are type A++++ women who like to check, double check, and then triple check. Gambling is not our thing, and we almost never leave anything up to chance. It’s just not our style. But through years of both professional and personal trials and tribulations, we have had to learn to let go—to give in to the unknown and to say okay to the previously unacceptable.

While we are certainly not recommending that you just go along for the ride on your fertility treatment merry-go-round (we want nothing more than to empower you to ask questions and participate actively in your treatment), we do want to help you close that weather app and accept what’s going on outside. You may not get pregnant on a bed of roses listening to Sade…it may be in an operating room with bright lights and a speculum. It doesn’t mean you failed or are any less of a woman. In fact, most would say you are even more of a warrior woman and will make an even better mom because of all you went through to become a parent.

Although the weather forecast may look bleak, remember, things can change as the days and time get closer. And even if it doesn’t, even if it rains or snows or hails in April, you can get through it. You may need to go to Plan B or Plan C, but at the end of the day, if you hang in there, you will be a parent. You will have a family, and you will reach the end of the fertility journey.
If you can find a way to accept your forecast, the skies will be bright on the other side; you may just get wet on the way.

The Most Unwelcome House Guest: Endometriomas

When you can’t find your keys, what do you do? Most of us go to the “hot” spots and start searching. Hot spots are those places that you usually, on most days, drop your keys: on the kitchen counter, in the hallway, hanging on a hook in the garage. By hitting those high-traffic key spots, we are pretty likely to find a match.

When looking for evidence of endometriosis, we go to those hot spots, and the ovaries are the hottest of the hot spots. Endometriosis that implants on the ovaries and forms a cyst is called an endometrioma. News flash: endometriomas and the ovaries are not friends; in fact, they are not even frenemies. They are unwelcome guests that can make the ovaries incredibly unhappy. And here’s why.

Intruders are not fun in anyone’s house. This is particularly true in the ovaries that are already dealing with a limited supply of goods (a.k.a. eggs). Endometriosis on the ovaries can range from mild (a few spots) to major (a whopping 10cm, plus a cyst). Usually, the bigger the cyst, the bigger the problem. And although this may be hard or disturbing to picture, what’s inside the cyst bears a close resemblance to chocolate. While we hope that didn’t destroy your love of everything Hershey’s, Nestle, or Godiva, that is what the brown fluid that leaks out of the cyst looks like.

And while it may look like chocolate, it’s more of an inflammatory soup; factors and mediators lurking in this fluid are not pleasant. They’re irritants. They can damage the ovary and eat away at your egg supply—as well as your quality of life. It is for this reason and others that women with endometriosis often experience infertility.

The walls of endometriomas were not built in a day. They are usually quite tough and scarred. In many cases, the ovary-plus-cyst complex is stuck like glue to surrounding abdominal organs (intestines, uterus, etc.). This can make taking them out pretty challenging. Fortunately, surgeons that specialize in endometriosis surgery have a lot of weapons in their armamentarium.

You want to make sure the good guys are fighting for you, and for this reason, make sure you vet your endo surgeon well. Unlike those keys that you couldn’t find, you can’t just get a new ovary copied. If you lose it, it is forever lost. For this reason, you want to make sure whomever you are trusting to “hold them” knows what they are doing.

The good news about endometriomas is that the hot/cold/found-it game is pretty easy. An ultrasound is pretty spot on in identifying what is likely an endometrioma and what is not. On ultrasounds, the cyst/mass will look greyish/white and solid, and it usually has a lot of blood flow. If your doctor is still on the fence about what is plaguing your ovary or needs more information before surgery, an MRI is usually their go to. With these tools in our pocket, we can decide if surgery is needed, what the best approach for surgery is, and how major the surgery will be. It is important to take good before pictures (say cheese!) prior to surgery so that you have a good idea about what the after should look like.

Unfortunately, the recurrence rate of endometriomas is pretty high, especially when the surgeon does not remove the cyst wall in its entirety. Simply draining the cyst doesn’t do all that much for you or for your chances of being cured.

Word of advice…make sure to ASK your surgeon how he or she plans to remove the endo before signing that consent form. The reason for the high recurrence rate of all things endo is that estrogen is fueling its fire. If estrogen is around, endo will grow—sort of like, if you build it they will come. It is for this reason that, for women who do not have babies on the brain (because they are not ready or they are done), we recommend shutting the reproductive system down (pills, Lupron etc.) after undergoing surgery.

Cold, hot, hotter, hottest—you found it! Endometriomas are often a pretty good giveaway for underlying endometriosis. They have no game face, and when present, you can pretty easily guess what’s causing those unpleasant symptoms. While they may not need to be treated unless causing pain or contributing to infertility, they do shed some major light on what may be hiding in the dark in your pelvis. It may be the key to what you experience in the future—make sure you know where you put it!

Cervical Mucus: A Marker for Ovulation and a Must for Pregnancy?

For many of us, there is nothing more off-putting than the thought of tracking your cervical mucus day after day, month after month. It’s not easy knowing what you are looking at, why you are staring at your underwear, how long this exercise needs to go on, and what you will do with this information.

Egg white versus watery, creamy versus sticky. Are we baking a cake or making a baby? While in many ways, it’s sort of a little bit of both, tracking your cervical mucus is not a prerequisite for detecting ovulation or having a baby. The changes that occur over the course of those approximately 26 to 36 days can provide helpful hints on both if and when you are ovulating. However, while it is important and does serve as a reservoir for sperm, it is much lower on the fertility pecking order.

The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (a.k.a. the womb); it is the conduit between the uterus and the vagina. When not pregnant, the cervix measures about 2 to 3 cm. During pregnancy and particularly as its end is near, the cervix begins to shorten, thin out, and ultimately dilate. Think of the cervical mucus as the pond at the base of this conduit. It serves as a reservoir for sperm by providing it with nutrients and safety for several days (up to five, to be exact!). While the majority of sperm is in the tubes minutes after ejaculation, the pond holds on to the stragglers. Over the course of about three to five days, sperm is released into the uterus and the tubes, hoping to meet its mate and make an embryo.

Much like the variability in the uterine lining during the approximately one-month-long menstrual cycle, the cervix and its mucus also go through a host of changes. After bleeding has stopped, the cervical mucus is usually scant, cloudy, and sticky. This lasts for about 3–5 days. What comes next is the stuff that you are taught to look for.

In the three to four days leading up to and after ovulation, the mucus changes to clear, stretchy, and fairly abundant. Following ovulation, the cervix becomes somewhat quiet, and cervical discharge remains scant. The “stage hands” behind the curtain setting the scene for the changes observed in cervical mucus are estrogen and progesterone production. Altering levels of estrogen and progesterone results in major modifications in mucus content and production.

If the cervix falls short on producing and maintaining its reservoir (a.k.a. mucus), problems can arise. However, while cervical factor infertility used to be considered a serious and real problem, today the cervix and cervical mucus production are hardly ever the cause of infertility (only about 3% of infertility cases are due to the cervix). Because of this, tests to evaluate the cervix/mucus are no longer needed.

Traditionally, a postcoital test (nicknamed the PCT) was performed to seek out cervical dysfunction. Now, picture this: fertility doctors used to obtain a sample of cervical mucus before ovulation and after intercourse and check it out under the microscope. They were looking for the presence (or absence) of moving sperm. Although this is sometimes used in couples that cannot have a formal sperm check, it is otherwise one for the ages. The subjectivity, poor reproducibility, and very inconvenient aspect of it have eighty-sixed the PCT in the land of fertility medicine.

In cases where the cervix has been previously cut, burned, or frozen, a narrowing of the cervical canal can arise (medically called cervical stenosis). Cervical stenosis can make procedures that require access to the uterus difficult (picture trying to pass something through a really narrow hole—it doesn’t fit!). Therefore, prior to undergoing any fertility treatment, a cervical dilation (that is, a widening of the cervix) may be required. This allows your doctor to then put sperm or embryos back into the uterus.

However, while the narrowing can make infertility procedures somewhat more challenging, the width is not what’s causing the entire problem. Cervices that have been exposed to trauma like surgery can have difficulty producing mucus. No mucus equals not much of a place for the sperm to hang out (cue IUI or IVF).

While the cervix may not be playing the feature role in the fertility play, it does serve as an important role. In addition to providing a respite to sperm, it also helps maintain a pregnancy to term. When a cervix shortens or dilates before time’s up, it can lead to a snowball of negative events: preterm labor and preterm delivery, to name a few. Bottom line, it’s not only a reservoir but also a roadblock. Until that nine-month mark has passed, it should not let anything out that front door!

Think about your cervix and cervical mucus but don’t drive yourself nuts. Yes it is a way to confirm ovulation but no it’s not the only way. While we are advocates of knowing your body and being aware of what’s going on with your cycle, obsessing over what’s going on won’t change what’s coming out. We have ways to get the sperm to meet the egg even if the cervix isn’t cooperating!

5 + 5 = 2? The Difference between Follicle Count and Embryo Number

Numbers are no strangers to fertility medicine; success rates, dosages, and egg/embryo counts are all things we count. And despite our tenuous personal relationship with math, over time, we have become quite comfortable with statistics, percentages, and probabilities (disclaimer—as they relate to IVF only)!

However, the number that often eludes us, and the question on so many patients’ minds, is the following: What is the follicle to egg to embryo to viable (able to make a baby) embryo conversion rate? Simply stated, if I have 10 follicles will I have 10 eggs, and if I have 10 eggs will I have 10 good embryos? The short answer, without any derivatives, formulas, or equations is no…You will very likely not. And here’s why.

Human reproduction is an incredibly inefficient process; think the DMV on a bad day! While we start with over a million eggs, a very small percentage of them actually have the potential of making a baby. So while a woman may ovulate every month, many of these months the egg that is released won’t put you on the path to pregnancy. Now, while in most natural un-medicated cycles only one egg is released per month, there are actually a group of eggs that are vying for the ovulation “trophy.”

Think of egg /ovulation selection as a horse race. At the beginning of the month, several horses (a.k.a. eggs) are racing to become the egg that will be ovulated. Ultimately, one breaks free, garners enough receptors to capitalize on the available hormones, and wins the ovulation race. When we are young, there may be 30 or 40 “horses” that enter this race. Although there will still only be one winner at the finish line, the race is more robust. As a result, there is a much higher chance that your winner will be fast, strong, and able to get the job done.

As we age, the number of “horses” lining up at the gate declines until we are left with only a few weaker, slower, scrawnier participants. There will still be a winner, but you may not get very many calls from interested breeders!

Let’s stay with the horse-racing metaphor for a moment. One of the primary goals of an IVF cycle is to ensure that all of the horses that start the race finish it; in this race, we don’t want a winner. As fertility doctors, we give hormones to ensure that there is enough juice to get every follicle/egg to go the distance and cross the finish line. We want all of the eggs in that month’s cohort to grow and develop at the same rate and ultimately achieve maturity.

However, even with the strongest of cocktails we are limited by the number of entrants. If five horses enter the race, we can have no more than five horses finish it. Think of the first ultrasound in an IVF cycle as the race check-in. If the doctor sees five follicles (remember, eggs are microscopic so we count follicles that hold the eggs) there are likely to be no more than five eggs extracted at the time of the retrieval.

Unfortunately, IVF is not as simple as horse racing, and the follicle number seen at the start does not always translate into the egg number you have at the end. There is a very large attrition rate as you move throughout an IVF cycle. The race is longer than a couple of laps around the track, and therefore, the numbers drop off quickly.

And the situation only becomes more complex as women age. As the years rise, the baseline follicle count falls, and you lose your cushion. With a diminished starting follicle count at the outset comes a decline in egg number at the conclusion. Fewer eggs equal fewer embryos. Fewer embryos mean fewer viable embryos.

No matter how young or old you are, there will always be a noticeable decline in the follicle to embryo equation. It is a function of human reproduction. However, if you are going to fall, you hope that there is a cushion below you to break that fall.