The Facts About Egg Freezing
So instead of getting married just to have a child or becoming a single mom, she decided to buy what she calls an insurance policy.
Laura recently went through the process of having her eggs frozen at the University of California San Francisco’s fertility center. That way, if she doesn’t meet anyone before she becomes infertile, she’ll still have a chance of having her own child.
What was once only an option for women with cancer trying to preserve their fertility while going through chemotherapy, egg freezing is now an alternative for healthy women trying to buy time.
“I’ve talked to so many of my friends who are struggling with fertility now. They regret not freezing their eggs,” says Laura, who works in marketing. “If I try to use these eggs and it doesn’t work, I will be disappointed. But at least I would know I tried my best.”
Also known as oocyte cryopreservation, egg freezing has become even more prevalent in the last year since the “experimental” label was lifted from the practice in 2012 by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). Nonetheless, ASRM cautions in a report that it does not want this technology to give women who defer childbearing false hope. The report says women who opt for egg freezing should be carefully counseled.
But even with these warnings, more women are opting to put their eggs on ice. In 2011, there were only 30 procedures done at UCSF. Just a year later, it jumped to 70; 60 percent were cancer patients and 40 percent did it for personal reasons. In 2013, there were 98 – 50 percent cancer patients and 50 percent had other reasons.
At the Pacific Fertility Center in San Francisco, there have been approxiamtely 300 egg freezing cases over the last two years, says Philip E. Chenette, M.D., who is a fertility specialist at the center. One third of those cases were in 2012 and the center’s numbers nearly doubled in 2013. About 95 percent are women choosing to do this, as opposed to women with health issues like cancer.
“The most common thing I see is a woman who gets to her mid 30s and realizes she wants a family someday, but her fertility is slipping away,” Chenette says. “A lot of them may have relationship issues; they may have just broken up with someone. We’ve had a lot of lesbian women who want to have children in the future, so they freeze their eggs. And I’ve had a lot of couples who just aren’t ready to have children yet.”
Like Buying Insurance
While the price has come down some, egg freezing is still a pricey procedure, especially considering you may not use the eggs or, if you do use them, you may not get pregnant.
The average cost for a round of egg freezing is $7,000 to $12,000, and that doesn’t include drugs and storage fees. Drugs can cost as much as $2,000, while storage fees run between $600 to $800 per year. To compare, a cycle of in vitro fertilization (IVF) costs $10,000 to $15,000.
Laura paid $9,000 for one round of egg freezing that resulted in 17 viable eggs. That included discounts she qualified for on medications. Some women pay as much as $50,000 if they need to go through several cycles to get enough healthy eggs. Usually, insurance companies don’t cover the costs.
But most women who go through the procedure look at it as an investment or like buying health insurance.&pagebreaking&Currently, Laura is dating someone, but she didn’t want to put any pressure on their relationship by talking about marriage and babies. Buying this “insurance plan,” she says, removed some of that pressure.
“I’ve had friends for which egg freezing didn’t work. I had a friend who only ended up with one or two eggs,” Laura says. “People need to think of it not as an ultimate solution, but as an option.”
At first, Marcelle Cedars, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science at UCSF, had concerns about the increase in egg freezing.
“I was concerned people would assume they had a baby in the freezer, and then wait until they are in their 40s and they would lose that window of opportunity to have a baby,” says Cedars, a doctor at UCSF Fertility Group.
But, she says, this at least gives those women a chance of having a child as long as they realize there are no guarantees.
Sarah, 38, of San Francisco, who did not want her real name used, says she could have purchased a new car with what she has spent on two cycles of egg freezing at Stanford’s Fertility and Reproductive Medicine Center.
“Earlier this year, I started to realize I was running out of time. I realized I wanted to raise children. I looked into adoption and single parenthood. But I decided I wasn’t ready to be a single parent and was saddened that I may be running out of time,” she says.
Sarah, who is a single business professional, says she wanted to go to great lengths to preserve her fertility. She has no regrets about going through the process.
“This gives me greater hope that I may be able to have children someday,” Sarah says. “I never thought I would be doing something like this three years ago. This is so far from my plan. I’m just trying to make the best of the situation.”
The process of getting your eggs frozen, starting with consulting with a doctor to freezing the eggs, takes about two weeks. During this time, the patient must give themselves hormone injections so they will produce more eggs. Women typically produce one mature egg per menstrual cycle, but doctors aim to remove about 20 for egg freezing.
Laura decided to take a week off from work to go through the process, since it can be uncomfortable at times.
When the eggs are removed, the patient is sedated for a 10 to 20-minute procedure in which a needle is placed through the vaginal wall into an ovary. The egg cells are then frozen using a “flash freezing” process called vitrification that can preserve them indefinitely.
“You have elevated estrogen levels, so you’re bloated and moody and you gain weight. I was waddling around and couldn’t wear any of my pants,” Laura says. &pagebreaking&Egg Freezing Success
The egg freezing process has improved over the years.
The vitrification process became the standard method less than a decade ago and replaced slow freezing, which was more likely to damage the eggs. Water is gradually removed from the cells so that damaging ice crystals don’t form, making it more likely the eggs will survive the freezing process, says Dr. Chenette of Pacific Fertility Center.
Since the procedure is so new, there is not a lot of data available about success rates, says Chenette. He does cite data from Italy that shows freezing eggs at age 38 or under gives a woman a 30 percent chance of getting pregnant per batch of six eggs. Data compiled locally shows women who freeze eggs at ages 21 to 30 have a 55 percent chance of getting pregnant per batch of six eggs, Chenette says.
Doctors say there would be more success if women froze their eggs at younger ages. Twenty-five is the ideal age, but even the early 30s is a good time to consider this, says Lynn Westphal, M.D., associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford University. Westphal set up one of the first egg freezing programs in the country in 1998. Her first patient was a cancer patient in 1999.
“If you wait until you are close to 40, there are fewer eggs and the quality isn’t as good. The eggs are aging,” she says. “We weren’t programmed to have children forever. One hundred years ago, no one was thinking about having kids in their 40s.”
The women who have the lowest success rates – women pushing 40 – are usually the ones who consider egg freezing, with the average age being 37 to 39.
Laura never thought she would be among this group of women. “In my mind, I thought I would get pregnant naturally. It’s not a very romantic prospect to have a child from a test tube.”
Teresa Mills-Faraudo is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent and mother of two.
Click here to read about the process of egg freezing.