Eight - time IVF veteran Aleney de Winter shares what she’s learned about assisted reproduction along the way
The conception of my first child was one of those “pinch me” moments. There I was laying on a bed draped in crisp white sheets, legs akimbo and skin radiant under the incandescent glow of … a dozen or so Halogen lights.
You know … just me, my husband, and a cast of thousands. The pinch me bit? Well, that was the doctor jamming a catheter up my hoo ha to transfer the embryo. Who said romance was dead?
You see, it took a diagnosis of “your uterus is an arid wasteland” and eight gruelling rounds of IVF for my husband and I to produce our two much-loved children. That’s eight cycles of jabbing myself with daily needles that left me so dotted with bruises that Cruella de Ville would have coveted my skin for a coat. Eight rounds of daily blood tests and ultrasounds so intimate and invasive that I wondered if they counted as me being unfaithful. And eight times the indignity of specialists, nurses and technicians copping an eyeful of my lady parts. Seriously, there were more people checking it out than if it had been framed and hung in the Louvre. I mean at what point would they start printing souvenir tea towels for the punters?
But with one in six Australian couples struggling with infertility, and a staggering one in 20 Australian babies born from IVF, my story is not unique. For those of you who might be struggling to conceive and wondering if assisted reproduction is your next step, let me share what I learned along this life changing, needle-strewn road.
The numbers – The good news is that IVF success rates have risen dramatically even in the few short years since I first played pin-the-embryo-on-the-uterus, with the live birth rate per cycle now at 35 per cent for women under 34, and the live birth rate per cycle for women aged 35 to 39 increasing from 19 per cent to 23 per cent.
You are what you eat – IVF can be an expensive journey, so it’s time to start treating your body like a temple and not a backpacker’s hostel. While infertility will make you feel more like you need a stiff drink than ever before, you’re going to need to ditch alcohol. You’re also going to want to nix caffeine, sugary drinks and processed sweeteners in order to improve your overall health, assist ovulation and ensure your uterus is in tip-top shape.
You see, babies can be quite fussy about their potential accommodation. And fair enough too, they are going to be bunking down for a solid nine months. But there’s no need to redecorate your uterus with a load of faux Louis XIV furniture for these picky embryos, some simple changes to your diet will suffice. The best foods to boost your fertility are beans, lentils, whole grains, sunflower seeds, avocado, quinoa, Greek yoghurt and cheeses, salmon and fruit – especially apples, bananas, oranges, berries, mangos, guava, and pineapple.
Bonus, you’re going to feel physically better than you have in ages from cutting put the naughty stuff and filling your body with all that nourishing goodness.
Pins and needles – While there are some IVF protocols that use pills and nasal spray, in most assisted reproduction services you’ll be sticking things that aren’t penises into your body to get pregnant. AKA needles.
Not only will you be subcutaneously injecting medications to control and stimulate egg development, there’s also blood testing required every few days during the process to monitor hormone levels in your blood. You may already be feeling like some kind of human dartboard and my next suggestion, which requires even more needles, may sound daft. But much research indicates that acupuncture has a beneficial effect on IVF outcomes.
Acupuncture relaxes the nervous system, demonstrably improves blood flow to the uterus and increases the rate of embryo implantation. So, it is absolutely worth signing up for a program of acupuncture jabs, starting at least four weeks prior to a cycle. The good news is it doesn’t hurt at all, and like me, you may love the results of a session so much it will become a regular part of your health routine.
Your body will undergo some changes during an IVF cycle, whether successful or not. This is due to your ovaries effectively being turned into a battery farm. In a normal, natural cycle, you will produce a single egg in a single follicle, but during an IVF cycle an average of 8 to 14 eggs will fill your follicular nests, so you are likely to feel a little sore and swollen. But this will last only a few days of the entire process and to be honest can be somewhat comforting, as it can provide a physical reminder that the process is working as it should.
Your boobs may swell too, especially if you have an exaggerated estrogen response, which comes with a risk of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. This is a rare occurrence and while my levels were a little extreme, they didn’t tip into the danger zone. They did however make my already sizeable breasts so big that by the day of retrieval I swear I saw a satellite orbiting them. For those thinking they might be in for a bonus boob job, don’t get too excited. It is a temporary side effect only, and comes accompanied with pain that can best be described as having bulldog clips clamped to your nipples. Fun!
Heads up – Your mental health will also need nurturing during this process. Let’s be brutally honest. Infertility is a shitty card to be dealt, and there’s probably been lots of tears and disappointments for you to get to the point of trying IVF in the first place. So, it’ll should be no surprise to learn that women presenting for IVF are statistically more depressed and have more self-esteem issues than their fertile sisters.
An IVF cycle brings with it a lot more pressure than a normal cycle. Not only is it a huge financial and emotional investment, it can be something of a last chance saloon. To complicate matters, you will see your microscopic embryo during transfer, which can make you feel like you are a ‘little bit’ pregnant. Ergo, if a cycle fails, and they do, the pain is amplified. Needless to say, research also shows that repeated IVF cycles can lead to a further increase in depressive symptoms.
You’ll also need to factor in that the cocktail of mood-altering meds you’re injecting, combined with what is an emotionally stressful time, can lead to a rollercoaster of mood swings. You may find yourself crying so often you resemble a sprinkler. You may feel a deep fear, of both the process and of its results as there is so much riding on them. You may feel irrationally angry. At everyone. But mostly your procreation partner, given that while you’re being medicated, poked and prodded day in and day out, it’s likely his only contribution to the whole process was a wank. Oh, speaking of your partner, if they aren’t into coherent, emotionally balanced women, they are going to simply adore the (temporarily) mood-swinging new you.
Regardless of whether you keep it together, turn feral, or need to buy shares in Kleenex, remember to be kind to yourself, and consider taking up any offers of counselling that most reproductive programs offer free of charge as part of the service.
Other people – They are important. But choose to surround yourself with the right ones while preparing yourself for an onslaught of thoughtless comments and stupid advice before, during and after the process. From the well-intentioned “just relax “ (yeah right!) and being asked constantly ‘are you pregnant yet?’ to the folks that tell you it took them “two whole months” to get pregnant and know how you feel. Because clearly a five-year journey of infertility and undergoing intrusive medical intervention is very a similar experience to them having glanced at a phallus and fallen pregnant.
Then there’s the “you just haven’t tried…” crowd. We have, OK? Seriously, if we’d heard that sticking our heads up an orang-utans arse would help our odds of falling pregnant, we’d have done it by now. Twice.
Then there’s my favourite piece of advice of all, almost always spouted by some smug faced, heavily pregnant woman toting a trailerful of toddlers, “maybe you’re not meant to be a parent”. Helpful. Thanks.
It may take all of your willpower not to stab said people in the face with your fertility meds injection pen. But don’t waste it, cos that stuff is expensive. The best way around this is to surround yourself with a support crew of kind, empathetic humans … or just hide under your bed for the duration.
The results – The 14 days you’ll need to wait to find out if you’ve been successful after an embryo transfer will feel like the longest of your life. For some the results will mean taking a baby home nine months later. For others, it will be heartbreak.
If you fall into the latter, my heart is breaking for you. But it’s important not to give up hope. Each of the six times I got a negative result while trying for my daughter, I allowed myself a few days to wallow, but made the decision to treat these not as the end of the road but as me being one step closer to a positive result. Because the odds off a successful cycle increase to 61 per cent after two cycles and 67 per cent after three cycles
And those odds, for such a life changing prize, are more than worth every minute of trying.
Disclaimer: This article provides general information only, and does not constitute health or medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your mental or physical health, seek immediate medical attention.