In this two-part series, five women share their journeys with egg freezing. Here, we kick off with two very personal stories.
Plenty has been written about egg freezing, a topic I have never really pondered before. I never actively sought more information about it, and throughout my life, it only came up in conversation twice, both times with a couple of close girlfriends, coincidentally around the time of my divorce. During that period, my focus was on safeguarding my future; I was preoccupied with healing my heart, rebuilding my life, and ensuring that my career remained on track.
The idea of egg freezing never crossed my mind. I didn’t consider investing time in research or discussing it with anyone. However, the topic of egg freezing has recently gained prominence, with shows like the ABC 730 report delving into the options, costs, and physical, mental, and emotional complexities associated with it.
So, in the spirit of HerCanberra, HerStory, my intention here is not to inundate you with more information. There’s already an abundance of resources available in this age of the internet. What I’ve truly yearned to do for a long time is engage in conversations with diverse women who possess unique opinions and experiences. My goal is to offer you, the reader, the opportunity to decide for yourself if this is a path you wish to explore or, at the very least, equip you with enough knowledge to make an informed decision.
Here, these courageous women graciously share their journeys—women who have navigated various aspects of fertility, balanced the demands of career, education, and family, and those who have chosen the path of simply “being,” wherever and whatever that may entail.
Taresa Cooper, 24, RPA Admin for Foetal Medicine, Sydney.
I believe that all women should be well-informed about their reproductive health. There is a pressing need for us to discuss reproductive health in the same manner we openly discuss addressing symptoms of a headache or the flu. Furthermore, I advocate for more women to actively engage in open dialogues with one another and share knowledge, experiences, and education across all age groups.
In full transparency, about a year ago, I received a diagnosis of endometriosis while seeking medical attention for an unrelated issue. Given my circumstances, I have contemplated the idea of egg freezing, and it is highly likely that I will proceed with it. However, I lack comprehensive information and remain uncertain about the optimal timing. I want to ensure that I undertake this before reaching the maximum age for such a procedure. My preliminary research on Medicare’s website has got me asking more questions, so, I need to spend a bit more time researching this. I want to have a thorough understanding of the process involved and the associated costs.
I confided in my gynaecologist regarding my concerns about never having fallen pregnant in the past – despite not using birth control and being in an exclusive relationship. His reassurances did not give me any confidence, at all – I was sitting in his office crying and in pain and worried about my health and his response was just not satisfactory. So, I have embarked on a journey to explore complementary and alternative medicine options to better manage my endometriosis.
I am deeply passionate about this subject, and I have been actively encouraging women to engage in conversations about female health, menstruation, and the reproductive system. This openness fosters dialogue that benefits everyone. Even our conversation today has provided me with valuable insights, reaffirming my belief in the power of women sharing knowledge. Collectively, through the sisterhood, we can raise awareness and normalise discussions around reproductive health.
Emma W, 34, Lobbyist, Canberra and Melbourne.
I grew up hearing stories from my mum about these mystical things called “fibroids” and how she had to have several of them surgically removed from her uterus in her early 20s.
Fibroids, I discovered, are benign tumours that grow in the uterus that can cause all sorts of problems from heavy periods, painful intercourse, and early hysterectomies. They may also cause no symptoms at all.
Mum’s doctor at the time suggested that she place her name on an adoption list. He advised her there was no way she’d be able to carry a baby in her now weakened uterus. She was understandably gutted.
A few short years later, Mum began to feel nauseous on on a ski trip. This turned out to be her first pregnancy with my brother. Three years later, I came along.
We were both delivered via caesarean but ultimately, that war-torn uterus of hers, did its job. Our births were the medical equivalent of the ‘middle finger’ to the doctor whose words had destroyed Mum’s hope of a family years earlier.
I had heard that story so many times growing up that it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me when, in my late 20s, a severe kidney infection requiring an ultrasound revealed numerous fibroids in my own uterus.
Weeks later, having recovered from the kidney infection, I followed up with my GP. He was pretty laissez-faire saying, “fibroids are very common but we normally see them in women older than you. If it’ll make you feel better, I can refer you to a gynaecologist.”
That gyno was Dr. Desiree Yap. She is wonderful. Warm, honest, clever. She was thrilled that I tracked my period in an app, and I used menstrual cups – this meant I was able to provide precise information about what was happening with my period. At one point Dr. Yap sighed, “You girls put up with so much.”
Dr. Yap, and perhaps most gynaecologists, need to ask their patients big existential questions every day. That morning she asked me if I wanted to have children. I told her that I wanted the option to have children, even if I never use that option.
That answer meant I needed to have a myomectomy – the fancy name for surgical removal of fibroids from the uterus. As Dr Yap explained, “You have plenty of eggs, but the oven is broken.” That broken oven being my uterus. She also warned me that I’d likely need a hysterectomy in my 40s. In other words, I was destined to follow the same path as Mum.
Prior to surgery, I was required to have “fertility counselling” and I was referred to a fertility specialist named Dr Lynn Burmeister. We spoke over the phone and she suggested I come back post-surgery to freeze my eggs. She reassured me that if my uterus couldn’t carry a baby that I could just use a surrogate. Simple as that.
Twelve months later, following surgery that removed over 25 fibroids from my uterus, the largest the size of a grapefruit, I reached out to Dr. Burmeister again. My request remained the same. I wanted the option to have a baby, even if I never used it.
I remember being furious. By this point, I was 31 and societal pressures already had their tenterhooks in me. The pressure to buy a house. The pressure to earn a certain amount of money. And now the pressure to decide to freeze my eggs.
I was downright p*ssed off to learn that a pregnancy over the age of 35 was classified as ‘geriatric’ and that the sooner I froze my eggs the better. More pressure. The pressure that my male peers didn’t have to contend with.
Dr. Burmeister took a different approach to fertility. Her clinics aren’t sterile. They feel more like a trendy cocktail bar. It was a space you wanted to be in. A space that didn’t make you feel like a failure for having a faulty uterus or being reproductively ‘geriatric’ in your 30s.
Dr. Burmeister’s vibrant interiors had somehow removed the shame I felt. Not only that, but her egg retrieval process has also been finely tuned for busy women with better things to do. You do some tests, you have some hormone injections, and you have a procedure to extract the eggs. Through it all, support is only a phone call away.
The hormone injections made me very puffy, both in the face and at the site of the injections, my stomach.
My career and ‘fertility journey’ collided when I was asked to be interviewed on TV the day before the egg retrieval when I was at peak puffiness. I did it because I never like to turn down opportunities. I remember sitting behind the TV studio desk in the only pair of pants that fit, my face as round as the full moon.
The following day I went to the hospital in the morning, got changed, and hopped on a bed. I met the doctor performing the egg retrieval procedure and after some small talk about the weather he felt compelled to remind me that even if he was able to retrieve lots of eggs, there was still no guarantee that those eggs would lead to a baby. He then told me that fertilised embryos freeze better than eggs alone.
I’m not sure what response he expected, given I was lying on a hospital bed, in a hospital gown sans underwear, following three weeks of self-administered hormone injections. “You’re right doc, let’s not bother, I’ll just head home. Unless you’ve got some sperm handy to turn my eggs into embryos?”
Instead, I gave him a, “I’m well aware, thanks.”
Twenty is the magical number. That’s how many eggs they aim to collect for the best chance of one pregnancy.
It can take some women numerous cycles of hormones and egg retrieval to collect 20 eggs. I was determined to hit 20 in my first go – there was no way I could go through the hormone injections again. At least not straight away. It’s funny to think I was so determined to achieve something I had absolutely no control over.
I woke up after the procedure, I was given a cup of tea and a salad sandwich. The doctor came around with a little, colourful certificate that said how many eggs they had collected. I got 22. It satisfied the competitive streak in me and helped ease the pain I was feeling post-procedure.
I couldn’t wait to boast to friends about my abundance of eggs. I text my friend with this bizarre new flex. He replied, “Are you a human or a hen? Let’s build you a coop. Well done!”
So what lessons can we learn from my story? Well, there’s a few. Firstly, pay attention to what health struggles your older family members have. You could be facing them next.
Trust your gut. My fibroids were largely downplayed by my GP. If I hadn’t followed up I would still have a grapefruit and 24 other various fruit-sized fibroids in me.
Empower yourself. Egg freezing is becoming cheaper every year as competition between providers grows and more women use fertility services. The process is straightforward. It’s not a fail-proof option, but it’s a decent safety net. Get it done and move on with your life.
And finally, destigmatise talking about the things that make us human. Menstruation. Babies. All of it. The more we communicate with each other, the better understanding we have of where we are and where are bodies are.
You’ll notice that I haven’t once mentioned “a partner” in this piece. That’s deliberate. Partners come and go. This journey wasn’t about anyone else but me. The ultimate form of self-care is to protect your fertility.