Upon deciding to freeze my eggs a few years ago, I realized so much about the process felt unknown, confusing, or taboo to ask about. Here is some of what I learned along the way.
- You’ll conquer your fear of needles. An egg retrieval takes about 2 weeks, not counting time spent consulting with your doctor, ordering your medication, and waiting for aunt flow so you can time the start just right. By the end of your two weeks, you will become a needle expert. That’s because on a nightly basis, you’ll inject 1-3 medications into your belly or thigh - medicines which tell your body to prepare as many eggs as it can. YouTube needle tutorials will become your friend, lest you end up with a bruised belly like I did. Your needle adventure will culminate in what’s called a “trigger shot” - a speciality injection which tells your body to ovulate all of the eggs you’ve been cooking up. Depending on the type of medicine your doctor puts you on, this last shot may require a partner or friend to jab your butt with an extra long needle (like, really long). You’ll be surprised by what you can get comfortable with!
- You’ll see your doctor more than your coworkers. In addition to your nightly date with needles, you’ll also have a near-daily date with your doctor. This is for what’s called “monitoring.” Monitoring appointments are typically bright and early (think 6:30am) and involve blood work (yes, more needles, but at least someone else is administering!) and usually also an ultrasound. The poking and prodding will feel endless, but monitoring allows your doctor to make important adjustments to your medication and gives you the best possible chance of retrieving healthy eggs.
- No two stories are the same. The vibe in the doctor’s office during monitoring hours is very somber. The waiting room will be filled with women from all walks of life, each with their own story and reason for being there. Some are drained from trying at length to get pregnant, holding onto hope that IVF will be their answer. Some find themselves approaching middle age without a partner or unsure that they will ever want children, concerned that their fertility window is closing and hoping to buy more time. Still others may be about to start cancer treatments which will harm their fertility, facing an urgent need to save their eggs before that happens. The waiting room has a serious and respectful feeling to it, with women speaking in hushed tones and holding eye contact with one another more deeply. It is not the time to take a loud, giggly phone call - not that you’d want to, given how yucky you’ll most likely be feeling. Speaking of...
- The side effects are no joke. The meds you'll inject every night are essentially tricking your body into a state of hyper-stimulation so that you ovulate as many eggs as possible (as opposed to the natural 1 egg per month). Think about the symptoms you normally experience during your period and multiply that by about 10... yikes! Of course, every woman’s body will be different, but typically you’ll become incredibly bloated, achy, tired, and emotional. In my experience, the emotional side effects from the hormones actually got worse after my egg retrievals, which I wasn't expecting. I suffered some serious blues for several weeks after the surgery, and I learned from friends that this wasn’t uncommon. If you know a woman going through the process, send them some love: before, during, and after!
- Surgery day is short and sweet. After ~2 weeks of self-administering nightly shots and traveling to early morning appointments, you’ll finally have the retrieval itself - a surgery which doesn't feel like much of a surgery at all. It’s a very short procedure (around 10 minutes) when the doctor goes in and grabs all of the eggs you’ve been busy cooking up. You’ll be given “twilight” anesthesia, so you are technically awake for it but you will have absolutely no awareness and feel zero pain. Although I was skeptical of it at first, twilight anesthesia is actually great - it takes no time at all to return to full consciousness and the recovery is far easier than if you were put fully under. You’ll hang out in a hospital bed with some crackers and ginger ale, and in my case my husband was able to sit with me and listen to me babble gibberish as my anesthesia wore off (apparently I was REALLY into my hospital socks). After about an hour, the nursing staff will discharge you and off you go! After each of my retrievals, I was able to walk to the car gingerly with no problem. I then spent the afternoon on the couch with magazines and Tylenol and was feeling more or less back to normal by the next day.
- There are no guarantees. Despite how methodical the entire process is, egg freezing comes with absolutely no guarantees. And unlike some medical procedures, your doctor will be able to give you only the roughest estimate of how successful they think it will be. You could invest a TON of time, money, and emotion into the process and still end up with few (or no) viable eggs when all is said and done. To make matters worse, most of your costs are incurred up front with doctor appointments and ordering speciality medications, so you’ll likely have already shelled out a bunch of money before you find out what the outcome is likely to be.
- It’s a numbers game. At the end of the day, egg freezing is a matter of probabilities. Not every egg that is retrieved from you will be mature, and not every mature egg will be strong enough to freeze, and not every frozen egg will survive thawing when it’s time for use, and not every thawed egg will be successfully fertilized, and not every fertilized egg will develop into a viable embryo, and not every embryo will successfully implant, and not every implanted embryo will yield a pregnancy. Is your head spinning yet? Mine was. All you have to know is that it takes a LOT of eggs to give you a reasonably high chance of having even a single baby. (This was news to me, I initially thought a couple eggs was a jackpot!) Immediately after your retrieval, your doctor may share how many eggs were retrieved, but it doesn’t stop there. A few days later, the office will call you with an update on how many of those eggs ended up being strong enough to either freeze or fertilize, and it will go on and on. It is a lot of waiting and nerves, but at least by then you can have a glass of wine in hand to ride it out!
- It takes a village. Egg freezing - whether as part of IVF or as a standalone procedure - is grueling. It takes its toll physically, mentally, and emotionally, and every woman’s experience will be different. But there is one thing everyone has in common: the support of family and friends makes a huge difference. If you have a loved one embarking on an egg retrieval, send a supportive text every few days to let them know you are rooting for them. Go over to their place for moral support during those early run-ins with needles. Ask how they are feeling (and respect them if they don’t want to talk about it). Offer to help around the house the day of their surgery. Consider sending a gift basket with a heating pad or comfy blanket and a favorite snack. And most importantly, let them know you think they are a bada$$ for doing what they did, no matter what their reason was!
(written by Kate)