Making the decision – my journey with egg freezing over 40

I started looking at egg freezing soon after my 40th birthday. An AMH test at a local clinic (not The Lister Fertility Clinic) had told me that I had an unusually low ovarian reserve, and I panicked. My local NHS consultant told me that he’d be more inclined to buy a lottery ticket than to bet on me having my own biological children: I was in despair.

I had always wanted children, but extensive health issues in my early thirties, and work disruption in my late thirties had stood in the way. Now that life was on an even keel was I being told it was too late, with an AMH that was on the floor and barely detectable?

Research told me that The Lister Fertility Clinic was the best place to go for someone with low ovarian reserve. In my first appointment I was told categorically that my best chance was to get pregnant now, with a sperm donor. Failing that the next best option was to freeze embryos. Freezing eggs was strongly advised against, due to the low number of babies that had been born nationally through this method.

So I proceeded, initially, with the intention of creating embryos. But when it came to it I couldn’t do it. I spent hours trawling Xytex and couldn’t make a decision. Furthermore I increasingly realised I wanted to know the donor. I talked to a gay friend about donation, but he had already decided to adopt with his partner; he didn’t want to be a part time dad. After wasting a number of fertile months agonising I decided it was back to Plan A: egg freezing.

This taught me lesson number 1; go with your gut instinct. My only regret about egg freezing was that I didn’t do it as soon as I thought of it. Nonetheless it was difficult to decide if it was really worth it given my diminished ovarian reserve. Was I deluding myself? I researched the scant literature on outcomes ruthlessly. A number of clinics said no-one should freeze eggs after 38; a few felt it was viable up to 42. In the end, the decision became easy. I couldn’t face using a sperm donor. I didn’t have a partner to procreate naturally with. My chance of a pregnancy using full IVF was already low; even if egg freezing had a lower chance of success, it was still the only option that was available to me, and a low chance wasn’t a zero chance. I also realised, through discussions with the lovely Dr Alison Taylor and the Lister counsellors, that using donor sperm was, for me, just as big a decision as using donor eggs, and that by the time I was ready emotionally to use donor sperm, I’d probably also be ready to use donor eggs. I wasn’t ready for either yet so freezing eggs was the only option – regardless of the chances of success.

Having the treatment

The treatment was relatively painless; however for me, it was fraught with complexity. After three cycles in which no more than two follicles developed, and where I never made it to egg collection, it was identified that my left ovary – and the only ovary that was producing eggs - was inaccessible, and possibly stuck to something else. An operation followed to move my left ovary which was stuck to my bowel.

Surprisingly, after this operation, my right ovary sprung into life – by the standards of someone with negligible AMH. Over another four cycles (only one of which had to be cancelled due to low response), I gathered 14 eggs, of which 11 were freezable. I had my last cycle at the age of 42, having decided that I would not freeze eggs past that age.

I am realistic about the decision I made. Embryo freezing or pregnancy would have been better; but for those who, like me, don’t want to use a sperm or egg donor, egg freezing is an increasingly valid option. Data on which to make a decision is scant, but there are cases, albeit very few, of people who froze eggs between the ages of 40 and 42 having live births. This year one fertility clinic has announced two live births in women who froze eggs at 40. More may follow.

The things I wish I had known before I started were:

  • That one cycle would not be enough. If you are 40 or over, and want a decent chance of getting enough eggs for one attempt, then I would advise budgeting for three cycles. I am not alone at the Lister in having needed multiple cycles to get a usable batch of eggs. I had eight cycles. Yes, eight. Four were cancelled due to low response to the drugs and my ovarian adhesions. One was cancelled because I ovulated early. The other three were successful
  • That the treatment is less physically unpleasant than I thought. The needles don’t really hurt, and the doses of drugs used are rarely high. The only time I needed off work was for the appointments and the egg collection day. My doctor (Alison Taylor) advocated low-dose drugs which was an effective approach
  • That the Lister is NOT an expensive clinic. I had initial reservations as the headline cost seemed higher at the Lister than at other places- but other clinics have hidden costs
  • That the process, whilst not physically stressful, is very emotional. Cancelled cycles are traumatic – hope seems to be slipping away - and you need support. For the first three cycles I told very few people what I was doing. By the fourth cycle – by which time I had had ovarian surgery – I told more of my closest female friends who were an invaluable source of support.
  • That fertility treatment involves an element of guesswork. No doctor can give you absolute answers as the technology is simply too new for anyone to say for sure what the success failure rate might be. No-one will be sure if you have managed to harvest that one good egg that might make a baby. You have to make your own decision to whether the expense, time and effort, are worth it, and be realistic about the chances of success
  • That freezing eggs would free my mind. Once that first batch of eggs was in the freezer I started to think more pragmatically about the use of donor eggs and realised that this was an option I was increasingly open to pursuing if the frozen eggs didn’t work.

Overall I am very glad I did it. I reviewed all possible options and for me, this was the only path I wanted to take. I am well aware that even with 11 eggs in the freezer, my chances of success are low due to the age at which I froze them. However, if I end up using donor eggs – which the clinic regularly reminded me would offer the best chance of success- it will be with the certain knowledge that I have done all I could to have a baby with my own eggs- within the constraints of my own personal boundaries and parameters. I won’t have to spend my life thinking ‘what if I’d chanced it’? For me, I know that whilst egg freezing was costly, and fraught with uncertainty, a life without regrets really is priceless.