Until the first birth from a frozen embryo in 1983, freezing was a process we really only thought about in the context of peas, leftovers and Connoisseur Cookies & Cream ice-cream. Nowadays, particularly for those on the fertility journey, reproductive cells have well and truly joined the movement, and getting eggs on ice has made the egg-freezing process part of our everyday vernacular.
But what is egg freezing and who should do it? How does it work and what costs are involved? We’ve unhatched the ins and outs of egg freezing so you can get back to your Cornetto.
What’s Up, Doc?
There are all sorts of reasons you might think about freezing your eggs. Certain health conditions, such as endometriosis and cancer, can kickstart egg-freezing considerations but, since 2012, your reasons don’t have to be medical.
Biological clock ticking louder than great-aunt Ruth’s comments about your still-single status? Keen to climb the career ladder and hold off on a family while your eggs in are their prime? Navigating the minefield of modern-day dating and considering chucking it in to be a lifelong spinster? These – and many others – are good motives to start looking into freezing your eggs. For most people, it’s about snap-locking those suckers in while they’re at their peak in terms of both quantity and quality, usually when we’re in our late 20s.
However, freezing your eggs at any age does not promise a future successful pregnancy, and some of the processes that go along with it can be physically, emotionally and financially taxing (more on that later). So, your GP is your first port of call – they’ll talk through the many and varied possible impacts of going down this path, and refer you on to a specialty clinic.
Let’s Get Clinical
Choosing a specialty clinic is as simple as making a baby … so, not that simple. It pays to do your research and make an informed decision that suits your circumstances and goals. Let the stats do the talking – ask clinics how many live births have resulted from thawed eggs in their care, and their estimate of eggs producing a baby if frozen at your age. Then talk cash. The fees advertised online might be sneaky, so check if there are any hidden extra costs involved. Clinics usually operate a bit like train stations with your luggage – they’ve got a “storage fee” for your eggs – so get the details on that, as well as any additional fees for thawing, fertilising and implanting your eggs down the track.
Once you’ve chosen your clinic, you can rest assured that you’re in the hands of specialists and incredible technology that has come leaps and bounds since that first miracle birth in the 80s. You’ll undertake ultrasounds and blood and urine tests to help determine the current quantity and quality of your eggs, as well as to predict how you’ll respond to the necessary hormone medication.
In healthy reproductive systems, a menstrual cycle will produce one lonesome egg, and there’s no guarantee that the little guy will grow into a onesie-clad bambino. So, an egg-freezing cycle makes like Easter by dialing egg production right up. The idea is to get your ovaries producing multiple eggs in one cycle to give the clinical team a greater harvest to pick from when it comes to that. How do they do it? Well, it’s actually kind of on you.
Egg freezing requires the freeze-ee to inject themselves with hormone medications to stimulate ovary overdrive. There are up to three different medications with their own clever jobs involved, and you’ll typically need to administer the injections once or twice daily for around 8-11 days. The clinic will show you how to self-inject under the skin with a thin needle that is more uncomfortable than it is painful. What might be a pain, though, are the side effects that about 1 in 4 women report from taking these medications. Hormone injection equals hormonal fluctuations so, if you’re one of the 25 per cent, you’ll feel like you’re PMS-ing hard with mood swings, hot flashes, sore boobs, bloating and headaches featuring heavily on the dishonourable mentions list.
Hunt and Gather
Around 36 hours after your final injection- also known as the trigger shot- enough eggs should have developed for harvest. Your work is done and the onus is back on to the clinic (hoorah!) to remove that precious cargo from the ovaries in a simple procedure under light sedation or anaesthetic.
Trans-vaginal or abdominal ultrasound is used to locate the fluid-filled follicles in which the eggs are contained, and a thin needle connected to a suction device is inserted through the vagina to retrieve them. The procedure takes around 20 minutes and, while the process itself should not feel painful, some cramping may be experienced following the procedure.
Mature, healthy eggs are then placed in a culture medium and incubated. If sperm has also been retrieved, the eggs may be mixed with some cheeky tadpoles at this point to – hopefully – create embryos. If a family isn’t on your immediate agenda, those embryos can then be frozen until their big moment. If, on the other hand, a potential sperm donor is still on the to-do list, your eggs will be frozen and stored solo.
On The Rocks
If you’ve come this far, your stockpile of eggs will hibernate for the winter … and the summer … and all four seasons for several years if you want them to. When the time is right, you’ll need to factor in an additional cost to have your eggs thawed out through a careful warming process. From there, if they’re not already, they’ll be fertilised with sperm in a laboratory and matured before being implanted into the uterus through IVF, usually between two-five days after fertilisation.
Frozen eggs truly are the superhero of the reproductive world – one minute, they’re chilling (literally) in their day job; next minute, they’re potential human beings! Clark Kent has nothing on these babies.