At the start of last year, soon after her 30th birthday, Lara Antoniolli decided to check her fertility.
The engineer had watched the fertility struggles of older friends and wanted to know what she was working with.
Antoniolli had no reason to think there would be any issues, so she was shocked when her GP told her the blood test results showed a very low count of eggs.
Lara Antoniolli says she couldn’t have prepared for what was to come.Credit:Louise Kennerley
“I was just like, ‘I don’t understand what’s wrong with me’,” says the Sydneysider, from Glebe. “This is a fundamental thing we get told we should be able to do as a woman… You definitely feel a bit broken.”
Though she wasn’t one hundred per cent certain she wanted kids, she wanted to give herself the best chance if she chose to down the track.
Two months later, Antoniolli began the first of four egg harvesting cycles with fertility clinic Genea Horizon.
She is among an exponentially increasing number of women turning to egg freezing for medical or social reasons. But, despite the high cost of the procedure (a full egg retrieval cycle can cost up to $11,000) many of these women don’t end up using their eggs.
In fact, associate professor Alex Polyakov from the University of Melbourne says that only about a quarter of women ever come back to use them.
The younger the woman is when she freezes her eggs, the less likely she is to use them later, says Polyakov, who argues women who wish to donate their eggs should be reimbursed. If they don’t wish to donate their eggs, they can choose to discard them or give them to research (it is illegal to turn them into embryos for research purposes).
With many eggs ending up unused, it is a balance, he says, between being young enough to still have enough eggs of good quality, and the likelihood of using them to justify the expense.
So, a new review, published in the February edition of the Australian Journal of General Practice, has suggested that the ideal age for women to freeze eggs is between 32 and 38.
“After 40, this technology simply doesn’t work,” Polyakov says. “Under 40, the chance of success is roughly the same as the fresh egg of the same age. So, the technology has matured over the last few years to the point where the fact of freezing doesn’t actually reduce the quality.”
Dietitian Susie Burrell encourages women who are embarking on a fertility journey to chat with a specialist dietitian.
“I regularly see women with PCOS [polycystic ovary syndrome], insulin resistance, MTHFR mutations [which inhibit the body’s ability to process folate and other B vitamins] and undiagnosed coeliac disease who have not had the right dietary prescription to naturally support fertility, but who have still been spending significant amounts of money trying to conceive,” Burrell says.
This may be so, however, Polyakov says: “For the majority of patients that we see, the most important determinant is the age. And this is the reason why this, this egg freezing is such a game changer because you can sort of freeze your age when you do this.”
Although the chance of pregnancy is more related to the age at which the eggs are frozen, than the age at which they’re used, the chance of a live birth via IVF is only about 39 per cent.
There is also a small risk of an adverse reaction to the hormone medications that stimulate egg production and, more commonly, symptoms including fatigue, nausea, headaches, abdominal pain, breast tenderness and irritability.
Is it worth it?
Simone Mitchell was 34 when she froze her eggs. Now, aged 42, she has come to the decision not to have children and plans to donate them to someone in need. That doesn’t come without its own challenges: “I feel very, very mixed,” she says of being notified about a live birth if she does donate.
Still, she is glad she did it. It removed the age-related sense of panic she felt about having a baby while she was unsure about what she wanted.
“It was kind of empowering,” she says. “So much is out of your hands, this is one thing you can do to shore up your chances down the track.”
Antoniolli, who is “pretty certain” now that she does want children, just not yet, feels the same.
Though she was satisfied with the information the clinic she went to gave, you can never be fully prepared for how emotionally taxing it can be, she says.
“Your life basically goes on hold,” says Antoniolli, who had daily injections for up to three weeks ahead of each harvest and who suffered minimal side effects aside from a little nausea and bloating.
One day, she had messed up the timing of her injection, so found herself injecting in the bathroom of a train station. Another day, she was loading up an Esky, so she could take her medication on a weekend away.
She found herself regularly thinking about things like whether she could take medication for a cold, how to get the timing of the injection right at a friend’s wedding and whether she could still play netball given vigorous exercise during the injection phase is not recommended.
“Because you are spending so much money doing this, you are so nervous about it going well,” says Antoniolli, who had some of the $44,000 she spent covered by Medicare as she was deemed infertile. “Anything that happens in your life, you’re just like, ‘Oh shit, is this going to impact like my eggs?’”
Now it is done, and she has 20 eggs frozen in a storage facility, it has given her a sense of control over her future.
“My doctor was very clear with me that this was not a guarantee. It was just trying to stack the odds a little bit in my favour. It may not work, but at least I’ve done what I can.”
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