Taking control: fertility and egg freezing
When it comes to issues surrounding fertility, whether it’s the presence or absence of it, to providing information on alternative methods of child-bearing, or perhaps the decision to not have children at all, we believe that all options, opinions and experiences need to be talked about. Too often is it assumed that all women can simply have children, but what about if you can’t, or you don’t want to right now?
Ahead of her talk at the British Science Festival, we asked science communicator Dr Emily Grossman to write about her decision to freeze her eggs, the process itself and the sense of freedom it’s given her in terms of her fertility.
When did you first encounter the option of egg freezing?
A few years ago when I was in my mid 30s I attended a talk at the Cheltenham Science Festival called “The Fertility Time Bomb?” in which fertility experts expressed their concerns about the increasing number of women leaving it later to have kids.
They talked about how women’s fertility rapidly drops from around their late 30s, how the chance of miscarriage and genetic abnormalities rises, and how increasing numbers of women are losing the opportunity to have children at all. They explained that even for those women who are managing to have children later in life (whether naturally or, more frequently these days, through IVF), many only manage to have one child. As one of the experts put it - we're in danger of creating a generation of "Lonely Only-ies".
When did you decide to freeze your eggs and why?
From the age of about 36 the pressure I felt to have a child began to get really intense, along with the fear that I wouldn't meet the right person in time. Whilst a part of me really wanted to have kids, another part of me didn't feel ready. I was very happy as I was - my career was taking off, and I hadn't met anyone I wanted to start a family with yet. I was pretty certain that having kids was something I wanted to do at some point though, and I was scared that it would get too late and I’d lose the opportunity.
I was seeing friends in their early 40s desperate to have children and finding it really hard or even impossible to conceive, and others in their late 30s, blinded by the biological urge to procreate, becoming so desperate to have a child that they rushed into things too quickly with a new partner and ended up as a single parent. I considered going it alone myself, and using a sperm donor as some of my single friends have done - but ideally it's not how I want to do it. For me it feels really important to be able to take the time to find the right partner to bring a child into the world with. So when I reached 38, I decided to freeze my eggs.
Could you describe the process and procedure of freezing your eggs?
I spoke to my doctor, had my hormone levels checked, and got referred to a private clinic in London. I had the whole thing organised within a fortnight.
The process consisted of two weeks of daily injections, which I did at home, along with visits to the clinic every other day for scans and blood tests. I injected myself into my belly every night before I went to bed and it was pretty easy and painless - weirdly I was so excited to be being proactive about my future that I actually found it almost fun. My doctor told me that I was lucky enough to be in the small minority of women who feel rather good on the hormones. I did feel more tired and emotional than usual, and sometimes a bit uncomfortable, but it was just such a relief to finally be doing something positive about a worry that had been hanging over me for so long.
I also began looking after myself better - eating healthily, and doing regular meditation and yoga. I took things as gently as I could for those two weeks, supported my body using acupuncture and some other alternative therapies, and I felt great. I was absolutely aware that this was no replacement to natural conception, but at least I was doing something. My family was really supportive, and my friends sent me pictures of happy faces drawn onto eggs lined up in egg boxes. In fact, you could say, that everyone was ‘egging’ me on.
The operation to retrieve the eggs was a bit uncomfortable but nothing too traumatic. I took someone with me for moral support, had a local anaesthetic, and I was up and about again the same afternoon. My belly was a little tender for a few days, but I took things slowly and I recovered fine.
On advice from my doctor I decided to do the whole cycle three times, to get as many eggs as possible. The bonus is that now these eggs are in the freezer they will be suspended at a biological age of 38, whilst my body will get older!
I feel really lucky to have been able to afford to go through this process: it’s not available on the NHS and it’s far from cheap, but for me it was worth every penny. My family also helped me out a bit with the cost – my dad liked the idea that he was “investing in my grandchildren”.
How has freezing your eggs worked into your fertility/child-bearing plans?
I'm so glad I've frozen my eggs. I’m fully aware that the success rates for IVF from frozen eggs is quite low, so having this done absolutely doesn't replace the urgency to conceive naturally at my age, but I really feel that it takes some of the pressure off.
I strongly believe that all women in their mid to late 30s should be made aware of the risks of waiting too long to try for a family, and what alternative options they have available to them – and, more importantly, that there's no shame in freezing your eggs. I think perhaps some women see egg freezing as admitting defeat - admitting that they haven't managed to do it the natural way. Thanks to modern science we have the opportunity to take a look at our biological clocks and side-step them for long enough to give ourselves a chance of motherhood that otherwise might not have been possible.
I'm really proud of what I've done. Who knows - the sense of empowerment and relief that I feel, and the accompanying decrease in stress levels, might even make it easier to conceive naturally when the time is right!
Dr Emily Grossman is an internationally acclaimed science writer, speaker and TV personality. She has a double first in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University and a PhD in cancer research, and also trained and worked as an actress. Emily is best known as a science expert on Sky1’s celebrity panel show Duck Quacks Don’t Echo, and for her work in schools and universities promoting women in science. See her website for more info.
The British Science Festival sees hundreds of science-focused events taking place all over Brighton on 5-9 September. View the full programme here.
Intro written by Sofaya.