Egg freezing gains popularity among women in 30s, 40s

WASHINGTON — Four years ago, Melanie Bradshaw, of Alexandria, found herself
going through what she calls “a messy divorce.” After separating from her husband, she was in no state
to date seriously. But she also didn’t want to abandon her
dream of one day having a family.

That’s why, two weeks shy of her 35th birthday, Bradshaw, now 39, invested in what she
calls “an insurance policy, of sorts.” She froze her eggs.

“I figured, that way, I could recover from the divorce and then take the pressure off,”
says Bradshaw, who works at Shady Grove Fertility Center, a local
fertility practice with several D.C. area locations.

Bradshaw is one of a growing number of women considering — and often turning
to — egg freezing, one of the medical industry’s newer options for fertility
preservation.

Earlier this fall, Facebook and Apple announced plans to offer perks to their employees
that expand beyond their already-enviable fitness, child care and stock options. The companies will
give up to $20,000 in benefits to help employees pay for fertility
treatments, including egg freezing.

Shelley Correll, a sociology professor and director of the Clayman Institute for Gender
Research at Stanford University, tells The Associated Press that the
benefit can help to mitigate a common conflict many young women face: the
biological clock versus the career track.

“The time that’s most important in work, for getting your career established, often
coincides with normal fertility time for women,” Correll says.

Statistics show women may be choosing career paths over younger pregnancies.
According to the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention
, the average age of women at first birth has
risen over the past four decades. First birth rates for women aged 40 to 44 increased
more than four-fold from 1985 to 2012, and first birth rates for women aged 35 to 39
rose in nearly all U.S. states from 2000 to 2012.

But careers aren’t the only consideration women face when it comes to delaying having a
baby. Similar to Bradshaw, Tiffany Angelo, a Bethesda-based physician, planned to have
a child with her husband, but after a sudden divorce, she faced a setback that could
potentially complicate her chances of becoming pregnant when she is ready.

“I still wanted to maintain my ability to have a child and also have a child that’s of
my own genetic material,” says Angelo, 39.

After researching her options, she decided to go the route of freezing her eggs.

“This is just another option should [having a natural pregnancy] not pan out,” Angelo
says. “It just
gives you more ways of trying to go about it.”

Even the research process of egg freezing is gaining traction as a trend. In cities
such
as San Francisco and New York, curious women are coming together over cocktails and
appetizers
to learn more about the process at egg freezing parties.

Dr. Aimee Eyvazzadeh, who started the parties, calls the gatherings “the 2014 version
of the Tupperware party.” Those who host an egg-freezing party even get a discount on
the procedure, should they decide to freeze their eggs.

However, unlike Tupperware, the cost of egg freezing isn’t in the double digits — or
even the triple digits. One cycle of egg freezing typically
costs between $10,000 and $15,000, and there’s another several thousand dollars down the
road when it comes time to thaw, fertilize and implant the embryo in the womb.

Both Bradshaw and Angelo paid for their procedures out of pocket. Angelo, however,
hopes more companies follow in the footsteps of Facebook and Apple and offer financial
coverage when it comes to fertility treatments.

“It should be an option not just for wealthy people,” she says. “That’s an unfair thing,
for it to be just for wealthy people.”

The fact that it’s only available to the wealthy, however, might not always be the case. The Associated
Press reports that coverage of infertility
treatments by employers is becoming more common. In 2013, 65 percent of companies with
500 or more workers covered an evaluation by a fertility specialist, which is the first
step in care; IVF coverage rose slightly too.

“Companies are actually listening to their employees. They’re seeing what’s happening;
they’re seeing what’s available,” Bradshaw says. “It’s such a positive thing to offer.
It’s so nice it’s becoming available.”

Bradshaw says the whole process of freezing her eggs took about two weeks. Similar to
IVF treatment, she gave herself daily subcutaneous shots to help stimulate her egg
growth.

“What that does is, it basically turns your hormones up; that’s how it felt … This was
like PMS times 10 for me,” Bradshaw says. “The one piece of advice I would give to
anyone is to remember it’s very temporary.”

While administering the shots, Bradshaw also went to the clinic frequently for blood
tests and check-in appointments, to make sure everything was progressing as planned.
The actual egg retrieval, during which Bradshaw was under a light anesthesia, took
15 to 20 minutes.

“I would describe the procedure as uncomfortable, but not painful,” Bradshaw says.
“I’ve had my wisdom teeth taken out, and the recovery [from egg retrieval] was actually
easier than the wisdom teeth.”

Within a week, Bradshaw was back to her normal and active routines of working, coaching
and running. And now, she has 18 mature eggs sitting in a temperature-controlled
freezer of liquid nitrogen, should she decide to use them in the future.

“I can date freely and not have this biological clock ticking in the background,” she
says. “And when I am dating someone and this comes up, they know very clearly that
that’s in my future, that I want a family.”

Dr. Eric Levens, a reproductive endocrinologist at Shady Grove Fertility Center’s
Annandale location, attributes egg freezing’s growing popularity to improved
technologies and outcomes, most of which occurred in the past five to six years.
(According to The Washington Post, the American Society for
Reproductive Medicine lifted the “experimental” label on the egg-freezing procedure two
years ago.)

“[The egg] is a very vulnerable cell, a very large cell with a lot of water content, so
it makes it very difficult to freeze,” says Levens, who says that newer techniques
allow doctors to freeze eggs at a much greater efficiency.

Prior to recent years, egg freezing was often reserved for women who didn’t have any
other fertility options, such as women receiving chemotherapy for cancers that would
make them sterile.

“I think the demand for the procedure is really a function of the technology and
improvements that we’ve made over the years,” says Levens, who, over the last few
years, has seen a significant
increase in requests for egg freezing.

However popular egg freezing is becoming, there is no guarantee that a woman can one
day get pregnant with the frozen eggs. Levens says the outcomes he’s seen using frozen
eggs are similar to the rates seen in IVF. The success rate is dependent on a
variety of factors, including maternal age and ovarian capacity.

The younger the woman is when she freezes her eggs, the better her chances are for
delivering a baby with those eggs, Levens explains. It matters less what age the
woman is when she uses the eggs; the success of pregnancy is largely dependent on her
age at the time of egg retrieval.

“And that’s true whether the eggs were frozen for six months or a year, or two
or three or 10 years,” Levens says.

For patients over the age of 35, Levens aims to retrieve and freeze 20 to 30 eggs.
Younger patients, however, don’t necessarily need as many.

“One of the real cruelties in biology is that as ovarian function declines, the quality
of the eggs decline, so it becomes harder to induce a response to get multiple eggs,
and as the quality declines, we need multiple eggs to compensate for that,” says
Levens, who adds that freezing eggs does not harm one’s chances for having a baby the
natural way.

Bradshaw, who says she was happy to be able to freeze 18, only completed one round of
egg freezing. If she wants more eggs in her bank, she will need to go back for an
additional cycle — and an additional hefty payment.

“Biology is biology; that’s not changing. But we can now change what it looks like for
each person,” Bradshaw says. “I love the fact that it’s an option for people. No one’s
saying that it’s right for everyone, but the fact that’s it’s an option now, it’s
incredible.”

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