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Are Frozen Eggs the Fountain of Youth?

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a blog by Serena H. Chen, M.D., IRMS Reproductive Medicine at Saint Barnabas, April 8, 2011

Should I freeze my eggs? Why are people talking about freezing their eggs now? Will this allow me to delay childbearing and still preserve my fertility?

Even though the first in vitro fertilization (IVF) baby was born in 1978, and the first birth from a frozen egg was reported in 1986, it is only recently that the technology has progressed enough to make egg freezing a viable option for women who want to preserve their fertility against the ravages of aging or other assaults, such as cancer treatment. Age, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy all take a toll on the ovaries and on a woman’s potential to have children.

Considering Egg Freezing

If you are 30 to 35 or older and have not yet found the right life partner with whom to raise a family, then egg freezing is now a reasonable option. It is not a perfect solution – there are no guarantees. The only guarantee is that, starting around age 27, a woman’s fertility drops every year due to age alone — even if all your aunts had babies in their 40s.

Using frozen eggs to conceive is still less likely to succeed than using fresh eggs, so if you are planning to conceive within the year, it is probably not worth the time or expense to freeze your eggs. However, if you are facing cancer treatment that is certain to compromise your fertility, or you don’t think you will be conceiving within a year or so, then egg freezing is something to consider.

A Fertility Insurance Plan

Many women who freeze their eggs end up using the frozen eggs as a type of insurance plan. Many may conceive on their own when the right time comes — when they are ready to conceive, when they have the right partner, the right life circumstances, or when their cancer is cured.

If they do not or cannot conceive on their own, they have the frozen eggs as a back-up plan. Since the eggs were frozen when they were younger and more fertile, the fertility potential may be greater than their current fertility.

How Successful Is Egg Freezing?

According to published reports, only about 400 babies world-wide have been born through egg freezing. Doctors and scientists still do not agree on the best techniques to use. However, birth defect and miscarriage rates are no higher than with conventional IVF.

Not all the eggs will survive the thawing process, and not all the eggs that survive the thaw will fertilize. Not all embryos created will result in a pregnancy, and not all pregnancies will result in a live birth. So the process can be inefficient, and some women may choose to undergo more than one cycle of drug stimulation and egg retrieval in order to bank more eggs. Thaw survival rates and pregnancy rates vary widely by clinic, and most clinics do not offer egg freezing at this time. However, this technique is becoming more widely available every day.

Insurance companies still consider egg freezing experimental and/or elective and often do not provide coverage, even if a patient has infertility benefits. There are special programs such as Fertile Hope, part of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, that provide some financial support to cancer patients for egg freezing.

So, fountain of youth? For some women, it's perhaps the closest thing we have. You decide. From my perspective as a doctor, it is nice to have another choice to offer to my patients.

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