Could freezing eggs be the answer for the working woman who still wants kids?
For Sabrina Matthews* of New York, N.Y., freezing her eggs wasn't on her radar. At 33, the consummate over-achiever and valedictorian of her high school has a successful career, owns two properties and the resources to travel the world. "Freezing my eggs seemed like an act of desperation, and I thought I had the rest of my 30s to meet someone, get married and then have kids, " she says. "It isn't that I made a conscious choice to focus on my career over meeting someone; I always believed that I would meet him along the way."
But that hasn't happened yet. So Matthews now finds herself bombarded with messages about her dwindling fertility from concerned friends and testimonials from powerful career women warning her that she cannot, in fact, "have it all." She says, "I'm considering freezing my eggs because it feels like it gives me some control back and takes some pressure off me to find someone 'before it's too late.' "
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Egg freezing-the process of extracting and storing eggs in liquid nitrogen to use with (or without) a future partner at a later date-is gaining more attention thanks to new technology involving vitrification, which is a flash-freezing method that has significantly increased the success rate of the procedure, as well as celebrities, such as Maria Menounos, speaking out about freezing her own eggs at age 33 in order to focus on her career. The result? More women are opting to freeze their eggs to buy themselves some time and ease the pressure of finding a partner, settling down and having children.
So will egg freezing actually allow women to have their proverbial cake and eat it, too?
William Schoolcraft, M.D., director of the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine says that his typical patient is a single female in her mid-30s who doesn't have a partner or visualize having one in the near future. Dr. Schoolcraft says her thought is, "I'm 35 and cannot see myself being married until I'm 38, 39, 40 or later and I don't want to adopt."
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At 35 years old, Debra Mendez of San Francisco, Calif., couldn't escape the fact that her friends were moving on with their lives while she was still single-and not exactly loving it. "Many of my friends are married or in relationships, and my Facebook newsfeed is picture after update after video of their kids," she says. Rather than rushing to the alter with anyone willing to put a ring on it, Mendez decided to freeze her eggs and take her time in finding the right person. While price was a factor when considering the procedure (egg freezing can cost $10,000 or more), Mendez says, "It's worth it to have peace of mind and know that I have options when I'm ready to make the right decision for me."
Having the option to freeze your eggs at a younger age, for those who can afford it, provides a sense of security, according to Rachel A. Sussman, a licensed social worker and author of "The Breakup Bible." Sussman points out that, rather than panicking about running out of time and making rash relationship decisions, egg freezing can help single women slow down when it comes to dating so they can find the right match. "When we get desperate about wanting to have children, it puts us in a bad position and we can choose the wrong person," says Sussman. Instead, single women can focus on "What will make me happy?" And for some, that may mean flying solo when it comes to becoming a parent. "Egg freezing gives the option to have children alone," she says.
But it's not just single, career-minded women who choose to freeze their eggs. Jaime M. Knopman, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist at Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York, says that her patients also include a handful of married couples who are not ready to have children, but are in their late 30s and don't want to risk struggling with infertility down the road.
Take Amy Freedman of Austin, Texas: "I've been married for almost a decade, and my husband and I still haven't had the biological clock tick for kids," she explains. "We've thought about them, but we're happy in our life, secure in our careers and frankly, not ready to go down that path just yet. However, I'm afraid that I'll wake up when we're past our prime and regret not having reproduced when it's too late. We're going to freeze our eggs for this reason."
The Gift of Egg Freezing
Dr. Knopman's typical patient comes in at the age of 37 to have her eggs frozen and often doesn't need to come back to thaw them until she is 45 (this can vary by clinic). If a woman is healthy and in her mid-forties, she's likely still able to conceive a baby-that's because it's the eggs that become an issue with age, not the rest of the body. This is where freezing comes in and why it works. "You're being your own egg donor, giving yourself a gift 10 years down the road," says Knopman.
According to Dr. Schoolcraft, just five or six years ago, egg freezing was primarily done on cancer patients who were undergoing chemotherapy and wanted to preserve their fertility. Now, thanks to new technology and excellent embryo quality obtained from vitrified oocytes, egg freezing and thawing techniques have improved significantly. "I went from having literally zero non-cancer patients to seeing several women a week for this procedure," explains Schoolcraft.
So how many eggs can you expect to get? That can vary based on a woman's age and ovarian reserve. For 35-year-old women, Schoolcraft retrieves an average of 10 to 13 eggs. And at Schoolcraft's Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine (CCRM), about 90 percent of the eggs survive the thawing process. Those resulting in an actual pregnancy vary by age. For women ages 35 to 37, for example, CCRM has a pregnancy rate of 75 percent and a live birth rate of 70 percent-comparable to IVF success rates-while women 38 to 40 have a pregnancy rate of 62 percent and a live birth rate of 61 percent.
What to Expect
For most clinics, the typical cost for the overall treatment runs an average of $10,000, which is not exactly chump change. Most insurance companies do not cover egg freezing, and although they occasionally cover medications (such as hormone injections) used during the treatment, it's really just a drop in a very expensive bucket. Knopman says to expect to spend two weeks devoted to prepping your eggs, including twice-daily hormonal injections, routine office visits and finally, egg retrieval, which requires anesthesia. "Most patients will experience cramping and gain water weight temporarily," says Knopman. "I always tell them to embrace leggings."
If you're considering freezing your eggs and are trying to find a clinic with a solid success rate, Schoolcraft recommends knowing the right questions to ask. The unspoken secret for patients is to not only ask if they freeze eggs, but also how many patients' eggs have been thawed, the survival rate at thawing, the pregnancy rate and finally, the live birth rate-the number that matters the most.
With women currently making up half of the workforce and more women delaying starting a family so they can focus on their careers, the number of egg freezing procedures is more than likely to go up. Unfortunately, our eggs have more limitations than our drive and determination. Knopman suggests that women become familiar with all of their fertility options by initiating a conversation with their gynecologist and researching options at fertility clinics. "The more we succeed professionally, the more we're going to see this problem arise, so it's best to be educated," notes Knopman.
- by Ann Roderique-Jones
* Names have been changed