For many women, a 30th birthday marks the end of a slow burn into adulthood, stunted from fully realising its gravity by the raging decade or so that precedes it.
Your 30s can also be a period in which fertility becomes a more burning consideration than ever before, as the tick of that biological clock becomes louder and more irritating. While there’s conjecture around the age at which we really need to start worrying about our reproductive odds, most medical professionals agree that women’s fertility peaks in their mid-late 20s, and steadily declines from there.
Before that initial appointment, her knowledge around the process was purely anecdotal.
“I just knew that women around my age should consider it, but I had absolutely no idea how it actually happened or what the process was,” she says.
In her first consultation, a specialist explained the various steps of the egg-freezing process, and pointed out the benefits of doing it while she was in her early 30s.
“She explained that, if I could afford it, it was good peace of mind to do it now,” she recalls. “It meant that if I decided at 38 years old that I wanted to have a child, I would have 32-year-old eggs to use. I thought that was a good safety net.”
The idea of progressing down this track was not without its concerns, though. Hayley suddenly found herself thrown into a new world of medical terminology and risk factors to which she had otherwise been blissfully oblivious.
“I was insanely overwhelmed. She said a lot of scientific and medical terminology, and I had to walk away and think about it,” she says. “But I came back a month later and told her I was ready to consider it and that I wanted to understand what was next.”
So began the preliminary tests that go along with most women’s egg-freezing experiences. Before eggs are extracted, fertility clinics undertake ultrasounds, urine and blood tests to help determine the health of a patient’s eggs, as well as to predict how they will respond to the necessary hormone medication. For Hayley, an initial ultrasound revealed a concern.
“The ultrasound showed that my egg count was low (for my age),” she says. “So the specialist put me on some herbal medicine to take daily for three months to try to increase my egg count before extraction. Then I came back and had another ultrasound, but it had made no difference.”
Thinking that it might be relevant to these findings, Hayley mentioned that she experienced bad period pain. As it turned out, it was a good thing that she did.
“The specialist thought that I might have endometriosis, and suggested a laparoscopy to find out. If I did have endo, it would make a difference to the cost of freezing my eggs, because I would be doing it for medical reasons rather than elective reasons,” she says.
What followed was a process of testing and waiting that spanned two years, due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its impact on the medical system. Eventually, Hayley received a diagnosis confirming endometriosis, which finally explained the intense period pain that she had experienced throughout her young adulthood, since coming off the contraceptive pill. By the time that COVID lockdowns began to be lifted and an opportunity to resume the egg-freezing process became available, Hayley was almost 35 years old.
“I had started thinking about this at 32 and now three years had gone by. I started to freak out and thought, yes, it’s time,” she says. “Then it was all systems go, and I started to see a team of nurses about next steps.”
Those next steps were largely in Hayley’s own hands, as she began to self-administer injections of hormones to boost follicle growth and prepare her body for egg collection. She followed a regime of daily injections, and visited the clinic for ultrasounds every few days. The process quickly became second nature.
“Grab some fat, jab it in – it didn’t hurt at all. It just became so normal and simple,” she says.
But, while the process might have been easy for Hayley, the side effects of these hormone boosts had their downsides.
“It mainly just seemed practical to me, but sometimes I would feel a bit emotional or on edge about what I was doing and what it meant for me as a single 34-year-old,” Hayley says. “But one day they announced another lockdown and I got so angry and emotional, because I was so full of these hormones I was jabbing myself with.”
Hayley’s emotions hit their peak on the day of her surgery for egg collection. A combination of anxiety about the procedure, as well as the final booster shot of hormones, were the likely culprits.
“When I went in on day 10 and the nurse said I was good to go, I felt overwhelmed,” she recalls. “I was a mess. It was the hormones and feeling a bit anxious about going under (anaesthetic) for the surgery.”
Hayley’s egg collection was successful, and her eggs were frozen for future fertilisation. However, despite her diagnosis of endometriosis allowing her to claim some of the cost of the procedure back, Hayley believes that egg-freezing and its associated processes should be more financially accessible.
“I have a very supportive family who helped me pay for it and didn’t ask for anything in return, but it’s still about $10,000 all up,” she says. “Women have choices, but they have hormonal impacts and they cost money. I wish for all women out there that it wasn’t so expensive.
“But I do love that talking about endo, egg-freezing and other womanly issues is becoming the norm. Normalising and talking about these sorts of opportunities is so important, and I’m so happy to talk about my experience with anyone.”