Lindsey Green, 39, is a single executive assistant from New York with dreams of meeting Mr. Right and having a child. Aware that her biological clock is ticking, Green, who asked that her real name be changed for privacy reasons, decided to take advantage of a fertility option for women that's growing in popularity. Last year, she froze her eggs.
"I was getting to be in my late 30s and frankly I never imagined I would be here in this place—I always thought that by this time I would have met the perfect guy and settled down," Green says. "But here I was, single, with dreams of becoming a mother one day and still waiting for the right person."
Now that Green has successfully frozen several of her eggs, she says she feels a newfound sense of freedom and empowerment.
"It feels amazing to know that I have this option for me," she says. "It's a huge gift."
Although the first reported birth from frozen eggs occurred back in 1986, it wasn't until 2012 that the American Society for Reproductive Medicine finally stopped considering egg freezing "experimental." Today a revolutionary new technique called vitrification, or flash-freezing, is helping to increase success rates by preventing the formation of damaging ice crystals on eggs.
"Globally, there are thousands of reports of healthy babies born from frozen eggs," says Alan Copperman, M.D., director of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York and medical director of Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York. "The science has pretty much caught up with the hype."
With female celebrities such as Sofia Vergara and Whitney Cummings having gone public in recent years with their decision to freeze their eggs, the process has become a bit less taboo, though some misconceptions still exist. To help you separate fact from fiction, here's some essential information you should know to decide if egg freezing is right for you.
How Does Egg Freezing Work?
A woman who is considering freezing her eggs should begin by scheduling a consultation with a reproductive endocrinologist, a type of physician specializing in fertility issues, who will perform an ultrasound and a blood test to determine whether she is a candidate for egg freezing and what her chances are of successfully preserving her fertility. If she's given the green light to freeze her eggs, she can generally complete the process in about two weeks or less.
The first part of the egg freezing process requires a woman to get over her fear of needles. After her period begins, she'll have to inject herself with fertility medication once or twice a day for about 10 to 12 days (the shots usually go into the belly or thigh).
"A woman typically ovulates one egg per month, but when exposed to fertility medications, she is capable of recruiting and ovulating multiple eggs," says Copperman. "There could certainly be some cramping and bloating, but it's really not a painful process and the injections are really well tolerated."
During the time that a woman is taking the injections, she'll have to see her fertility doctor every few days for a blood test and an ultrasound to monitor her progress. It's common for doctors to offer these appointments in the early morning hours so that patients do not have to miss work.
Once the maximum number of follicles—fluid-filled sacs in the ovaries that each contain a single egg—are mature, a woman will then undergo the egg retrieval procedure. During the quick procedure, which can last as little as ten minutes, she'll be sedated as her doctor uses ultrasound guidance to pass a needle through her vagina to remove the mature eggs. A woman will have to take a day off from work for the egg retrieval, but she can go home the same day. Although there are risks involved with any type of procedure, Dr. Copperman says that egg freezing is very safe and women can quickly go about their normal lives.
"After the procedure, most women go out to dinner that night and go back to work the next day," says Copperman.
Eggs are taken to a lab for preservation when the retrieval process is complete. "The embryologist would then freeze them by essentially dehydrating them, putting in cellular antifreeze, and placing them in liquid nitrogen where they're metabolically inactive," says Copperman. "The eggs are stored in a locked, secured room with temperature monitors, and whenever a woman is ready to use them, she can have them thawed, fertilized and transferred into her uterus." (To watch how the egg freezing process works, check out this video by RMA New York.)
Unfortunately, not all eggs are normal and able to survive the process of freezing, thawing and eventual implantation.
"Only mature, chromosomally normal eggs have a chance to become fertilized and potentially yield a pregnancy," says David Diaz, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., and founder and medical director of West Coast Fertility Centers in Fountain Valley, Calif. "Women with the greatest percentage of favorable eggs are in their 20s or early 30s."
Copperman says that for the best chances of success, a woman should aim to freeze at least ten eggs, which can sometimes require her to undergo the entire egg freezing cycle more than once (she'll have to pay for the costs involved again, too, though she might be offered a discount). "We like to use the number 'ten eggs for one baby,'" says Copperman.
Why Freeze Your Eggs?
There are many reasons why a woman would choose to freeze her eggs. Some women elect to undergo the procedure to allow themselves more time to pursue educational and career goals or to find the right partner. Egg freezing is also an option for servicewomen who will spend long spans of time abroad.
"We've spoken to a lot of women's military [members] who are going overseas for a couple of years and want to make sure that either time or injury or exposure doesn't interfere with her ability to someway have children," Copperman explains.
Egg freezing is also often recommended to women who will undergo medical treatments that could impair fertility, such as chemotherapy or radiation. For instance, a woman who has been diagnosed with cancer could consider freezing her eggs before her chemo treatments begin to help preserve healthy eggs.
How Much Does Egg Freezing Cost?
While fees vary, Copperman says that egg freezing costs around $9,000, plus the cost of medication, which can be up to $5,000. Most insurance companies do not cover elective egg freezing, though some may help pay for fertility medications, and some may cover the procedure specifically for patients who are freezing their eggs for medical reasons, such as with cancer patients.
Some large corporations, such as Apple and Facebook, are even offering to foot the bill for egg freezing as an employee benefit.
Keep in mind that after a woman's eggs are retrieved, she'll also have to pay an annual fee to keep her eggs stored safely until she is ready to use them. Storage fees vary but typically average around $500 per year.
When to Use Your Eggs
Copperman says that because fertility issues are due more to the age of a woman's eggs than to the age of her uterus, healthy eggs that are frozen can be successfully implanted into women up to ages 50 to 55.
It's hard to say for certain how long eggs can be frozen because egg freezing technology is so new, but preliminary data suggests that there might not be a limit.
"In our practice, seven years is the longest time elapsed from freezing to thawing that resulted in a live birth, but theoretically eggs have the potential to remain frozen indefinitely provided they are constantly replenished with liquid nitrogen to maintain the freezing temperature at -190 degrees Celsius," says Diaz.
Green isn't sure when she'll use her eggs, but she's relieved to know they are being kept in a safe place. She says she strongly encourages other women to consider freezing their eggs, too.
"I think that it can be an intense two weeks as far as injections, but it's really nothing that you can't handle," she says. "It gives you the freedom to live life according your own clock, and I think it's a wonderful option that we have right now that many of our female ancestors did not have."