pregnancy

'This is exactly what it feels like to have your eggs frozen at 24.'

It’s not new, but egg freezing is a hot topic at the moment. If you’re a fan of The Bold Type, it’ll definitely be on your radar. (If not, one of the main characters, a twenty-something features writer called Jane, has one of the main story lines of the season – she’s been weighing up egg freezing as a means to safeguard her fertility after having been found to have the BRCA gene.) I don’t have the BRCA gene, but I am a twenty-something. Weirdly, I hope to one day work as a features writer too.

Also? I have cancer. Being faced with the prospect of losing your fertility due to disease is something I can relate to because I’ve lived it. And I have the IVF scars – physical and emotional – to prove it.

In 2014, I was diagnosed with stage III metastatic melanoma. In a nutshell, it sucked. Fast forward through endless appointments, the amputation of a toe (where the cancer had originated), a full lymph node dissection and then onset lymphoedema. Even when I was out of the woods, so to speak, the battle wasn’t over. Every day I thought the same thing – it could come back. But every day that it didn’t I thanked the universe. I had faced death at 20 years old, but I didn’t let it stop me from living. I refused to let fear creep in, so I started a new life at a new university. Then, I went on exchange to Venice. The universe smiled on me – I met and fell in love with my wonderful partner. I came back with a newly discovered zest for life, until one day I was again seated in my oncologist’s office hearing those three terrible words. I was 24, and this time, the cancer had reappeared in my lungs.

The facts on fertility you need to know about.

Video by MMC

Naturally, my life fell apart. I wanted to isolate myself and I wanted to break up with my very new boyfriend. I thought about dying and let myself go to the dark side. I felt hopeless and I raged in anger this was happening again. What I didn’t think about then was egg freezing. (I have my mother to thank for that.) Once my oncologist had determined that immunotherapy (a specialised type of chemo) was my best option, I agreed to proceed. But my mum, looking towards the future when I certainly couldn’t, asked what the treatment would do to my fertility. The doctor looked at me with apologetic eyes and, in the saddest voice you’ve ever heard, told me he wasn’t sure. There was no scientific literature to support the idea that I wouldn’t be able to conceive successfully afterwards, but he also couldn’t guarantee immunotherapy wouldn’t destroy the quality of my eggs. The fact was, there were no documented cases of a woman having a child after having immunotherapy. Not one.

ADVERTISEMENT

So, there I was, sitting in this office, feeling like I might be suffocating. I had my parents – red-rimmed eyes and all – to my right, and my oncologist and his team to the left. Everyone was looking at me. The odds for having babies weren’t in my favour, but I was still trying to deal with having just been told I had stage IV melanoma in my lungs. I remember merely nodding my head, thinking that yes, this was a good idea. Yes, it was practical. Yes, I so badly want children. So, I signed the form.

I began IVF treatment three days later. I thought I was going to my first appointment with the fertility doctor to talk, but I ended up leaving with a bag of drugs and a form asking me to designate a guardian for my eggs in the event I was unable to make decisions or died. I remember sitting at home that night, pen quivering above the dotted line. My boyfriend and I had been dating for four and a half months. I knew he was the love of my life, but I hesitated to write his name there. I didn’t want to burden him with this too. In the end, I nominated my mother because she was sitting next to me. She promised if anything were to happen, she’d sign my eggs over to my partner in a heartbeat.

The bespoke cocktail of hormones I was given – the main ones being follicle-stimulating hormones – were to be self-injected over the course of the next week. Usually women start on low doses, working their way up over six weeks, but because I had limited time, I was put on the highest dose allowable straight out of the gate. It hurt. Injecting myself every day, then twice a day, never became routine. My ovaries went from the size of chestnuts to grapefruits and then it got even tougher. Every injection had a purpose, from stimulating my ovaries to produce follicles, to stopping them from ovulating to, finally, triggering my eggs to mature so that they could be collected under anaesthetic.

Once I’d started, I had two days of normalcy before my body expanded like a novelty balloon. To be honest, I felt sh*t. All I wanted to do was sleep. My friends didn’t know how to talk to me because they couldn’t imagine what it was like. My parents felt for me but couldn’t understand either. I started to feel my ovaries twitch all the time. I could feel them suddenly weighing down my body.

They were just there, taking up space, making me recoil when the doctor did an internal ultrasound. I felt discomfort I had never experienced before. My clothes didn’t fit, especially my favourite pair of high-waisted jeans. My mood was not my own. There were food cravings and tears, and mental health hurdles to jump over. The trigger injection hurt the most, probably because it was the biggest needle of the lot. Within thirty seconds of administering it, I felt vomit coming up my throat. I ran to the bathroom but fainted. My partner caught me right before I smashed my head on the floor.

fertility test reliable
"To be honest, I felt sh*t. All I wanted to do was sleep," says Natalie. Image: Getty.
ADVERTISEMENT

After a week the egg retrieval was done. Over the course an hour a transvaginal ultrasound probe with a needle attached was poked through my vaginal walls and into my ovaries to extract my eggs. The harvested eggs were then placed in liquid nitrogen to freeze. I wasn’t too worried about the process itself, but I did feel anxious about getting up on that table. I hated laying there, no underwear on, my legs in stirrups, and surrounded by a team of ten nurses. I knew it had to happen, but I hated it. Happily, I was put under quickly, but I woke up to a throbbing uterus. Someone had written the number 38 on my hand. I soon found out they had retrieved 38 eggs. I remember thinking, that’s a lot. I still think 38 is a lot. Statistics say one in ten eggs is viable, so my mind says that’s three and a half babies. Maybe four. I have maybe four chances in my future for in vitro fertilisation to work.

Maybe.

One of the biggest misconceptions about egg freezing is that it definitely works. But between the injections, the freezing, the thawing, the fertilisation and the implantation, a lot can go wrong. There are potential side effects from treatment, too. After egg retrieval, you might suffer from ovary hyper stimulation syndrome. Or you might struggle with depression or suffer from anxiety throughout. Egg freezing isn’t as easy as it sounds, and that’s not negative, it’s just real. The process can be harsh, but the aftermath wasn’t something I could process, because two days later I started immunotherapy.

My experience doesn’t mean that you, or someone you know, will go through the same. Every experience and need for egg freezing is different. That said, I hope it can shed some light on what it’s like for those considering it or talking about it with others. For some, like myself, it’s a necessity. For others, it’s security. Neither is more or less valid. Having done it I can breathe easier knowing that if cancer treatment does kill my ovaries - which is rare but can happen - I did the sensible thing. Will I use those eggs? I don’t know. Medicine changes so rapidly that in five years’ time, I might not need to.

Like Jane in the The Bold Type, my circumstances are specific. I don’t know how her storyline will unfold, whether it will glamorise the egg freezing or deal with the realities head on, but I do know it’s a good thing we’re talking about it."

Light blue and pink butterfly illustration. You click, we help. Shooting star illustration.

Mamamia is funding 100 girls in school, every day.

So just by spending time with Mamamia, you’re helping educate girls, which is the best tool to lift them out of poverty.

Thanks for helping!

Light blue and pink butterfly illustration. Girl with pigtails sitting at desk writing in notebook. Row of four books.
Three hands holding books
00:00 / ???