This was one of the hardest parts of being diagnosed with Cancer young (young enough not to have reached menopause yet). Why? Because it can literally put your life upside down.
I never wanted to have babies. I remember being a child and saying to my mum:
“I won´t have babies because it hurts so much”. Don´t ask me why I would say such a thing (my mother was asleep during delivery, so I cannot possibly remember her in pain. Maybe I do remember another life – Who knows?) But the truth is that I did not want babies.
I was not even keen on freezing my eggs after knowing I had Cancer, because what was the point of doing this, if you don´t want descendants? But I decided to give it a go, still not sure why.
Perhaps it was my boyfriend begging me to do so, but not because he would be involved with my potential future babies (our story is a bit complicated). Or maybe I decided to give it a go, because several doctors told me that it is highly probable that I will reach menopause, after receiving the chemo for my particular type of Cancer.
That is really scary, even for a woman who doesn´t want to have babies. It kind of shakes your world and makes you wonder: “Was I wrong all this time? Perhaps now I want babies.” I suppose you just want the possibility to be there, as almost every other woman has. For whatever reason, I decided to go through the process of freezing my eggs, willing to stop it at the slightest moment of discomfort.
But the truth is that during the two weeks that it lasts, there are many moments of discomfort, as each two days you need to take blood tests and do vaginal ultrasounds, and every morning and evening you need to put injections in your belly (that sometimes can hurt, or give you a bit of a reaction). Besides that, you need to take antibiotics for a week before the egg collection procedure, and also take estrogen suppressors, like Letrozole, if your Cancer is fed by estrogen.
The process can be overwhelming to say the least. Maybe it is the hormones you inject into your body; did you know that Menopur, the medicine you mainly inject into your belly, contains hormones taken from menopause women´s pee? I mean, maybe it is better not to know it, but, apparently, women after menopause have high levels of some hormone that helps with fertility (who could have possibly discovered this? I wonder…) Even men can take Menopur for fertility purposes. I find it fascinating.
In any case, I don´t know if it was these hormones the ones which had a strange and powerful effect on me, or if it is that when you do something, you end up believing it. Or needing it. You know what I mean? If I don´t like exercising, but yet I exercise everyday, apparently within 60 days or so (or even before that) it becomes a habit that, later on, I won´t be able to let go.
Have you ever heard of it? That, by doing something, your beliefs can actually change? Well… I don´t know what it was, but the truth is that something on me did change during those days. At the beginning I thought it was really bad, because if I really wanted babies now, it is such an ironic situation, as I probably won´t be able to have them, after receiving chemo.
How it Works
The process of freezing your eggs is not easy, although it is not difficult either, but it is indeed uncomfortable, so you need to be highly motivated, and when you have Cancer, you have other priorities in mind, really.
For doctors to be able to collect your eggs, you´ll need to undergo the same hormone-injection procedure that women who are going through IVF (in vitro fertilization) process follow. This involves giving yourself injections in your belly for about 12 to 14 days. The difference is that with egg freezing, once eggs are collected, they are frozen; instead of them being fertilized, and put them back into the uterus as embryos.
The egg freezing process is newer and, therefore, statistics of egg survival are poor. I won´t go into that, because I absolutely hate statistics. What might work for one, might not work for another person, but, most importantly, what might actually seem like a poor statistic does not mean is going to be your case.
The doctors told me each egg collected means a (depressing) 5% chance of pregnancy. But guess what? A single egg could work for you! So forget about statistics. I really don´t like them, and doctors… the more doctors I know the more I actually dislike them. It is outrageous how badly they explain things sometimes: with numbers, without asking the right questions to the patient, and, basically, without heart.
When I decided to give this process a go, before starting chemo (so I opted to delay my much needed chemo as I have a fast-growing tumour), it was because I had 19 eggs, so I thought: “Ok, with 19 eggs and the stimulation I am going to get, I will have more than enough to freeze! And if they collect, let´s say, 20 eggs, then for sure I can have a baby in the future…” I wasn´t explained anything else, or things in a better way.
However, in the middle of the process I was really disappointed when they told me I only had two follicles growing and getting ready for collection. Out of 25 eggs! (the number had grown due to the injections). But… only two? How lazy are my other eggs! Come down now, when I say so to you, kids! (or semi kids…)
I was very disappointed with my eggs, but much more with those doctors. I mean they are clearly used to women who know all about the process they are about to go into. I get it. But they forgot that I am here only because I have Cancer. I do not know anything about the science of having kids. I mean, I know that men put their tool into your hole (ok, not the right way to explain it), but apart from that… I had no idea of anything else! I remember a friend saying how difficult is to actually get pregnant, something like there is only a little chance every month to get pregnant; about two days? Like if it is almost a little miracle when it happens. But I didn´t know anything about eggs, follicles and in between.
And still… I don´t really wanna know, because I might not be able to have them, and it is not the point of this piece of rant-writing.
How Many Eggs do we Have?
So this the daunting reality:
Women are born with all the eggs they are ever going to have – about 2 million eggs in their ovaries (this is different for men, who have new sperm all the time. Lucky cows), and 11,000 eggs die approximately every month before reaching puberty! Despicable.
During each menstrual cycle, a number of eggs are activated to prepare for ovulation, but only one egg takes the… let´s say courage, to mature and be released from the ovary. The other eggs/follicles are lost. Doctors say that we ovulate about 400 times in our life (33 years of periods, approximately), but they also estimate that we lose about 1000 follicles (potential eggs) every month!
The older you get, the fewer eggs and the less quality you have. During egg freezing, the medication used makes these otherwise lost eggs to mature, so your body produces several eggs in one cycle.
Don´t Give Up!
I did the treatment for 12 days in total and I was really glad when the two brave eggs became 6 only two days later, so if this is happening to you, don´t give up! I was about to quit, when they told me that I only had two eggs. I said (with the face of a stupid mathematician): “Only two? That is just 10% of chances to have a baby, for God´s sake! What a waste of my time!”
How could I say that? Like if they cared, besides! In the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Wing at UCL Hospital, doctors were actually nice enough to look at me perplexedly and begged me to continue with the process.
One young nurse said to me with a sad face: “But if you don´t freeze your two eggs, you´ll have 0% chance, won´t you?” So I decided to quickly lose my stupid mathematician face (as I was clearly a very bad one).
She was damn right! So I went ahead.
I also ended up being convinced by the wonderful Freddie Mercury. No, he
didn´t appear in my dreams that night, but I went to watch the film and, when he tells his band mates that he has HIV, he also says something like: “I´m going to work my arse until the end. I am gonna give it all I´ve got”, and that is something he absolutely did. He knew everything would finish soon, so he could have thought: Why should I continue? For what? Let me drink and party, let me sleep and relax, till it´s all over. But he chose to fight, and it paid off, as many millions of people are thanking God everyday for Freddie Mercury´s work; some of his best from those last years.
So I went ahead (not that Freddie´s story has anything to do with my story, but I felt motivated enough), and there was a point, in my eight or ninth day into the treatment, in the middle of putting injections in the morning and night, taking antibiotics and estrogen suppressors during the day, that I started talking to my eggs.
I don´t know how to explain what came over me, but… I actually realised that these eggs could one day be my babies. I always also said that, if I had babies I would love these to be twins, so I thought: hell, these two eggs could be my twins!! Of course! How silly I was?? Two eggs, why would I want more eggs, really? These two are the ones! The ones that, in times of great adversity, are getting ready to be humans!!
Amazing. I really felt The Love for those two eggs, and talked to them for several minutes per day. Also to the other eggs, urging them to be courageous, and get ready to come out. Yes, that was a bit crazy.
So indeed, I did go through the whole process, and, in the end, they collected 10 eggs, something I didn´t really expect. Perhaps my chats to them worked! The ten of them were frozen, although only five were mature. They did freeze them anyway, because they said: “There is always new technology, and, in the future, we might be able to mature eggs in the laboratory”.
Eggs are Delicate
The bad news is that sometimes they cannot freeze all the eggs they collect, as these are very fragile (embryos are much more resistant).
Some eggs won´t survive the defrosting process either, and some cannot be fertilised. Some of them can be fertilised, but they have some genetic mutation that makes them unsuitable, and sometimes, when the eggs and sperm have “fallen in love” (my romantic way to say that they´ve become embryos), they cannot hold onto the uterus.
There are indeed so many possible bad outcomes, and that is all really scary, especially because now I really feel that I could want to have babies. I am not scared anymore, which I think it was the only problem for me (apart from the teeny tiny issue of meeting the potential father).
It is something really strange to explain, but Cancer and this IVF treatment have made me understand that I am not that scared of physical pain, as I was before. I suppose I was just a terrified-spoilt hedonist, who was very scared of physical pain, not sure why. A few mini traumas from my childhood come to mind, but I am not scared anymore. I am sure now that I would be able to have babies (well… I mean if God allows, if chemo doesn´t destroy my ovaries).
But if I am not able to have kids for whatever reason, I have also learnt to accept it. This process has taught me a great deal of lessons. It completely changed my mind in something I really thought it was impossible.
The Cancer diagnosis and the IVF treatment are both really emotional and unbelievably powerful in making me understand that humans are absolutely adaptable, and that you can survive whatever is thrown at you.
So, if you ask me: “Is it worth doing this treatment and waiting a bit longer for your chemo?” The answer is YES, indeed.
The chemo will only be postponed for a couple of weeks, and you can handle that, even with a fast-growing tumour. I don´t regret to have done it, as, at least, now I feel that I´ve done everything in my power to have my own babies, if I ever want to. If it´s not meant to be, then it won´t be up to myself.