Egg Freezing: What You Need To Know

Statistics show the number of women freezing their eggs is soaring – and it’s little wonder. One way to protect fertility and press pause on your biological clock, it’s definitely an option worth educating yourself on. Here, one woman details her experience – plus, three of the UK’s leading fertility experts share some key information.
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Marie-Louise Gourlay was 35 when the end of a long-term relationship prompted her to think about freezing her eggs. She told us more about her experience, as well as the advice she’d give other women in a similar position.

I’d been with my partner for about seven years but we split up when I was 35. I hadn’t been ready for children before this point but because I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted – and because my age was feeling like more of a factor – I decided to investigate freezing my eggs. I knew deep down I wanted a family and should try to preserve my chances of having one. 

A friend of mine had been through it and was able to share a lot of valuable information. It made a big difference having someone explain the reality, beyond just the medical facts. Her experience had also been very positive, which was encouraging. After speaking to some friends who had been through IVF, one of the big differences that jumped out to me between these two journeys was that, with egg freezing, there wasn’t any worry about getting pregnant. As long as you managed to harvest a good number of eggs – I was lucky, I got 19 – that’s where the emotional rollercoaster ended. That said, a lot of people did tell me to ensure I was in a good place mentally before I moved ahead with anything. 

The process started with a general fertility test. A lot of women use this to understand whether now is the right time to freeze their eggs. I expected the doctors to tell me my fertility was low (the sceptics will tell you all doctors want you to have the treatment) but I was pleasantly surprised. Aged 37, they said I was a prime candidate because the quality of my eggs was probably still good, and my level of fertility hormone was also high. They were also able to diagnose me with adenomyosis – a condition where the tissue that lines the uterus grows into the muscular wall. It explained why I’d suffered with such painful periods for years – up until this point, I’d been completely in dark.

Even so, I wasn’t convinced about moving ahead with the procedure. I still thought long and hard about whether I wanted to put myself through it, as well as all the costs involved. I had to weigh up whether I would actually want to use the eggs one day – even potentially with a sperm donor – but it was the second lockdown which clarified my thinking. By this point, I still hadn’t signed up to do it, but it dawned on me it would have been the perfect time. When the third lockdown was announced, and I’d had more time to think about, I decided to go for it. 

The total cost for me fell somewhere in the region of £6,000. Because of my hormone levels, I didn’t pay as much as other friends who required more extensive treatment. Overall, the process was easier than expected – but I’d really taken on board what friends had told me about mindset. I felt strong and informed going into it, which made a big difference. I also don’t have a fear of needles – if you do, it’s worth thinking how you might manage all the injections.

The injections lasted about ten days, and I went into the clinic every second or third day to be checked over. Everything was fine, but they warned me I was at risk of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHS). If you have a high reserve of eggs and they’re constantly stimulated, there’s a chance your body will react negatively. The eventual egg collection (which was done under general anaesthetic) was completely fine, but I found I was quite emotional afterwards, which was surprising.

The total cost for me fell somewhere in the region of £6,000. Because of my hormone levels, I didn’t pay as much as other friends who required more extensive treatment.

I came home afterwards but by the evening, I started feeling quite unwell. My sister and brother-in-law ended up taking me to hospital, but the staff didn’t know what to do with me. It dawned on me that the aftercare from the clinic wasn’t great – it shouldn’t have been fallen to the NHS to treat me for complications. Thankfully, my clinic has now changed its protocols, with patients assigned a specific person to call on in case anything goes wrong. 

It turned out my ovaries had swollen to around 10cm in size (they’re normally around 3cm). I also had a lot of urine retention and some internal bleeding. They’re all symptoms of OHS, and while it wasn’t terrible, it was very uncomfortable. The good news was I had been warned about it – plus, it’s quite common. I ended up taking nearly a week off work – I was told not to move too much to avoid ovarian torsion and couldn’t exercise until I’d had at least two periods. It ended up being about eight weeks of rest in total.

My main piece of advice for other women is to thoroughly check the aftercare procedure at your clinic. I found it quite astounding there wasn’t an emergency number I could call when things went a bit wrong – especially when the clinic had warned me about potential complications. I’d also say don’t do it if you’re just hedging your bets – it’s not something to be done flippantly and the cost can be a big burden. Also, start thinking about it, the earlier the better. The more knowledge you have, the lower the chance you’ll make a decision in haste – or even one you might regret. 

Despite everything, freezing my eggs has been absolutely the right decision for me. I felt very empowered having done it – especially after the end of my relationship left me feeling very low. It’s definitely given me more control over my future. Too many of us take our fertility for granted, so it’s worth exploring your options as much as possible. 

Here, three fertility experts share some of the important information…

It’s Popular For A Reason

Statistics show egg freezing is one of the fastest growing fertility trends in the UK. As Alison Campbell, head of embryology at Care Fertility, says, “National data suggests around 2,000 women elected to freeze their eggs in 2018. It’s expected this number will continue to grow as there’s increased awareness and continuously improving practice in clinics.” Statistics also show elective egg freezing for social reasons (i.e. to offset concerns around age-related fertility and fertility decline) is the main reason why women are opting for the procedure. In such cases, egg freezing enables a woman to preserve her current rates of fertility. For example, if you freeze your eggs when you’re 32 and use them when you’re 39, you’ll be attempting conception with the eggs of a 32-year-old, giving yourself a better chance of pregnancy.

Age Matters

The younger you are when you freeze your eggs, the better your chances. “The age women choose to freeze their eggs varies considerably, but the highest chances of success are achieved when women store their eggs under the age of 36. The chances of success decline as female age increases,” Alison says. Zita West, one of the UK’s leading fertility experts, recommends freezing your eggs before the age of 35. “It can be misleading as many women look and feel great for their age, but this is not necessarily reflected in your ovaries. Many women aged 38-40 who undergo egg freezing require more than one session to harvest enough quality eggs, which can be expensive – each round costs around £5,000.”

A Fertility MOT Is Where You’ll Start

If you decide to get your eggs frozen, the first step is a fertility MOT to ascertain whether your eggs are suitable. “There’s an initial consultation where you have your egg reserves assessed by blood tests looking at levels of anti-Mullerian hormone (AMH) and an ultrasound scan (often referred to as an antral follicle count), which counts the number of follicles on the ovaries,” Zita explains. “This gives doctors an idea of how likely you are to respond to treatment. It’ll also help your doctor work out which drugs to use and a rough indication of how you will respond to the treatment.”

The age women choose to freeze their eggs varies considerably, but the highest chances of success are achieved when women store their eggs under the age of 36.
Alison Campbell

It’s An Intense Procedure

Egg freezing may sound straightforward, but it’s quite a full-on procedure, says Zita. “Many women underestimate what is involved. In reality, you’ll probably need to take a couple of days off work.” The egg freezing treatment begins similarly to IVF – a course of injections to stimulate the ovaries, followed by the egg collection procedure, but unlike IVF there’s no embryo to put back. “The procedure involves a woman stimulating egg production, giving herself injections daily for around ten days. During this time, she will have blood tests and scans to assess how stimulation is going. She will then be given what is called a trigger injection to release the eggs and will then undergo a procedure in theatre under anaesthetic where the eggs are collected, assessed for their maturity (this is called grading) and then frozen.” When it comes to using your frozen egg when the time is right, the process is also similar to IVF: “We would thaw the egg when needed and treat the process as IVF with either your partner’s or a donor’s sperm,” says Zita.

There Can Be Side Effects

“Modern techniques make the risk of over-responding and hyper-stimulation lower,” says James Nicopoullos, clinical director and consultant gynaecologist at The Lister Fertility Clinic, referring to a reaction that can happen from the fertility drugs that promote ovulation. “However, the egg collection itself does have a small risk of infection and bleeding, so women are given antibiotics post-procedure. Your menstrual cycle will likely return within ten to 14 days of the procedure.”

It’s Not Bulletproof

While egg freezing may be temporarily reassuring, it’s not necessarily a sure-fire way of preserving future fertility. As James explains, freezing your eggs doesn’t necessarily equate to a live birth further down the line. “Data from our clinic, which matches the national data, suggests one in 15 frozen eggs achieves a live birth in women under the age of 35. This rises to one in 20 in women between the ages of 35-40 and considerably less thereafter. Therefore, you’re realistically looking at more than one cycle to freeze enough eggs to have a higher chance of a live birth.” However, James explains there are anomalies to this data, with some women only having two or three eggs collected and achieving a live birth, while others have many more frozen and are unsuccessful. Alison says if you are under the age of 36, you should be looking to freeze around 20 eggs for your best chances of conception.

There’s A Monthly Fee

It’s worth bearing in mind that once your eggs have been harvested, you’ll need to pay for storage. This can be several hundreds of pounds per month, but many of London’s top clinics offer egg freezing packages, which include storage for two to three years. While you may decide to use your eggs within this time, it’s also worth noting you can’t legally keep eggs on ice for more than ten years. “The standard legal storage period is up to ten years, but in some cases, such as with cancer patients, they can be stored for longer. The egg freezing limit has also just been extended for two years due to the current pandemic, so it’s worth exploring this with your clinic, too.” Alison says. Alison also stresses that freezing does not affect egg quality, however long your eggs have been frozen.

 

For more information on Zita West, visit ZitaWestClinic.com. Care Fertility works closely with the Zita West Clinic – visit CareFertility.com. The Lister Fertility Clinic is based on Harley Street but has other locations, visit ListerFertility.co.uk.

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