Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Infertility Competition

We spend so much time scoring and labeling things and people, it's like we're in a perpetual competition. Most of the time, I wonder who or what we're competing against. But when you're going through IVF you are up against, what often seems like, insurmountable odds. Your FSH has to be acceptable; you have to produce the best quality eggs (and not just 1 or 2 of them!); then your embryos will be graded like the dozen eggs at your grocery store; and at last, should you be so lucky to get a BFP, even that might not be good enough.

As you begin your cycle, it all starts with your FSH levels. Most clinics will have a cut off -- usually they'll want you to have an FSH lower than 12, but every clinic is different. This is one way your clinic weeds out the "bad eggs" (pun definitely intended!). They want competitive success rates, so if your FSH is too high, you're going to be a big challenge to them. So before you can even put your legs up on the stirrups, you're sent to the back of the line  to either do a few months of acupuncture with the hopes of lower your FSH or perhaps to revisit your option of egg donation. Either way, when you've psyched yourself up to start a cycle, there's nothing that will deflate your spirits faster than not even being allowed to enter the race.

Then you're on to follicle counts. What's an ideal number? Who really knows. But most IF literature will tell you that 10-12 mature follicles will yield the best success rates. It's really your RE's objective to try and control the quantity of follicles you produce. If you have PCOS, like I do, you're likely to produce more follicles, but your RE should aim to taper the development of too many follicles, as this will most likely lead to weaker quality eggs (and hence, embryos). However, if you have POF, then you'll be thrilled if you have 5 mature follicles. Either way, remember, it's about quality and not quantity. As cliche as that might sound to you, I speak from personal experience, which I will discuss next time.

Now, you've finally made it to the other side of your egg retrieval and looking at the second chapter of this arduous process: the embryo transfer. As your joint contributions (egg + sperm) develop into embryos, the embryology lab will grade each embryo to eventually select the best two (or three) to transfer back into you. The grading of embryos* will vary based on the age of the embryos to be transferred (Day 3 vs. Blastocysts are the most common stages of transfer) and the quality. Sitting in a backless gown across from your RE, only to be handed something that looks like a report card always left me in a cold sweat. Deep down, you feel like those grades are a reflection of you and your husband (Who are we kidding?! Of course, it's all about you) -- of how well you performed through this obstacle course. Of course it's not about how well you did, but they are your embryos and you want them to have a head start in life (even before the crazy pre-K interviews that lay ahead). At the end of the day, regardless of their grades, you will welcome back any and all embryos your RE has selected for you. All you can hope for is that they stick and don't leave your roof for the next 18 years.

At last, the much anticipated POAS day is here and you are (hopefully) doing a happy dance in your bathroom, holding your positive HPT in one hand to prove to yourself and the world that you did it! You'll go in for your Hcg/beta test to confirm the happy news. And even here, you will have to meet a certain score to validate your pregnancy, because we wouldn't want you to get too happy, right? Ideally your Hcg should be 50 or better at 14 days post ER (for more detailed chart go here). Lower levels of Hcg are usually not good news (there are exceptions) and indicative of either an impending chemical pregnancy or an ectopic. And very high initial Hcg levels will have your nurse proclaim, "Ohh, ohhh... someone's having twins!" Most clinics will have you go in every 48 hours to see your Hcg levels double (or better). The tension will continue to build until your first ultrasound (oh, magic wand, how I've missed you) to check that there is indeed a little bean in there.

In the land of infertility, we strive to be overachievers. We define our worth by the number of eggs produced and the quality of our embryos. But I promise you that when your day comes (and I really hope it does for all of you), you won't care how many embryos you created and what grade they were. There is no telling which embryos will turn into mini versions of yourself (even the REs will admit it), so I say this with caution: this cycle could be your cycle. Here's to hoping. Cheers!

*Day 3 embryos will be checked for number of cells (8-10 cells @ 72 hours); the evenness of the cells (they should be all about the same size); and the degree of fragmentation (you want as little fragmentation as possible).Your embryo will be graded on a scale of 1 to 4, and the ones with the most even cells and least amount of fragmentation will be transferred back into your uterus. However, if you are looking at blastocysts (Day5 or 6), then the key factors are: the expansion of the blast (graded on 1 to 6); the quality of the inner cell mass, i.e. the baby-to-be (graded A, B, or C); and the quality of the torphectoderm, i.e. the placenta-to-be (graded A, B, or C). Every lab has a different scale, so a 5 could mean a good or bad thing depending on your lab. Make sure your RE explains exactly what the letter and numbers mean as it pertains to your precious embryos.


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