There are many reasons why you might want to preserve your fertility. You may want to delay starting a family because you haven’t met the right partner, you are in the thick of your career, you have a high risk job or you have been diagnosed with a serious illness where the treatment may affect your fertility.
Your first steps to preserving fertility is to explore the IVF processes available to you. These are egg, sperm and embryo freezing.
Increasing amounts of worldwide medical research seem to suggest that this process may be as effective as fresh eggs if you want to achieve pregnancy. Data that looks at the long-term risks of using frozen eggs also shows no increase in risk in premature labour or birth defects compared with fresh eggs.
A new method of storing eggs (vitrification) is helping to improve the chances of eggs surviving the freeze-thaw process and so increasing the success rate, too.
How does egg freezing work? Fertility drugs are used to stimulate the ovaries to produce follicles (which contain the eggs) and boost egg production. When the follicles are large enough, they are carefully emptied to collect the eggs while the patient is under sedation or general anaesthetic. The eggs are placed in storage in liquid nitrogen.
Often with IVF or ICSI (sperm injected into the embryo), people have a number of unused embryos after their first cycle. They can be frozen for IVF cycles in future or donated to other women to help them achieve pregnancy. Embryos can also be donated for research or training.
Your chances of becoming pregnant with a thawed frozen embryo are not affected by the length of time the embryo has been stored. But not all embryos will survive freezing and eventual thawing when they come to be used. Success rates compared with fresh embryos differ from clinic to clinic, but the latest evidence suggests they are about the same overall. New techniques are being developed all the time and this will affect outcomes.
Sperm can be frozen and used later for IVF or artificial insemination into the womb and other fertility treatments. If it’s donated, it is stored for six months to screen the donor for infections before it can be used in treatment.
If you want to freeze and store your sperm, your consultant will explain the process involved. You’ll be screened for infectious diseases, including HIV and hepatitis B and C.
At the clinic, you produce a fresh sample of sperm, which is frozen and stored in liquid nitrogen. Freezing stops the sperm’s natural ‘biological clock’ and they are able to remain alive for many years. You usually need to give written consent for your sperm to be stored.
As many as one in ten cases of cancer happen to adults of reproductive age. Rapid advances in medical science and new treatment options allow young adults to live longer and better lives.
These treatments do not have to end the hopes of having a family. In many cases, women with cancer can freeze their eggs and embryos before cancer treatment starts and men will have the opportunity to freeze their sperm.