Freezing your eggs at age 24

Fighting cancer and facing chemotherapy, Claudia Grieco has to act quickly to help preserve her fertility.

Caludio Grieco
Photo of Claudia Grieco by Melissa Di Pasquale

“One round usually produces between 10 and 20 eggs,” the doctor says. I’m 24 years old and sitting next to my fiancé, Dave, in a Toronto fertility clinic. A malignant tumour has just been removed from my right breast, and we’ve been advised to harvest some of my eggs because the chemo I’m scheduled for could harm or even destroy my reproductive system.

I can’t quite explain how disconcerting it was to learn that the treatment that could save my life might be the thing to prevent me from creating one, but we’re reassured that given my age and prognosis, we’ll likely be able to conceive naturally. Despite the good odds, the doctor still feels it’s important to have a backup plan, just in case, because like all things in this life, there are no guarantees.

Read more: Breast cancer — what you need to know>

I’m feeling uneasy. I barely know where I stand on the topic of fertility treatments and suddenly I have to make a big decision. Up to this point, I’ve always believed that if you can’t naturally conceive a child, do the world a favour and adopt one. So many kids need homes and it seemed selfish and expensive to go about starting a family any other way. But here I am, faced with the possibility of not being able to make a baby with the man I love so much, and suddenly the concept is making a lot more sense to me.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of thinking this all the way through. All I know is that if I want to start a biological family, we’re running out of time. The sooner I decide, the sooner I can start chemo. Because, in order to actually have this family we’re here to plan for, first I have to be alive. And the sooner I start chemo, the sooner I can start recovering for my wedding, which is a mere seven months away.

We decide to go ahead with it.

“Once the eggs are extracted, we can either freeze them,” the doctor explains, “or we could freeze embryos instead.” I’m nodding my head even though I don’t really grasp what my choices are. In an nutshell: Freezing only my eggs is a great way to up my chances of getting pregnant if we have trouble, but freezing embryos is even better, because embryos would be my eggs that have been fertilized with Dave’s sperm, and that means a lot of the work is already done.

So it would make sense that I’d want to go with the latter option since that should yield the best results. But cancer is a tricky thing, and so is starting a family. The choice isn’t so easy.

Dave is completely on team Fertilize All The Eggs. He focuses on the fantastic life we will have together, which includes a fantastic house with fantastic jobs and our two or three fantastic children. I, on the other hand, start to think about my life without Dave.

When you’re engaged to be married, the goal for most people is to be together forever, happy and in love. Given that I’m the sick person in the relationship, one would assume that I might be the one to perish early, should perishing early be on the table. But it doesn’t occur to anyone – especially Dave – what would happen if he were the one to do so, even metaphorically by some marital split. (Are we all knocking on wood?)

I’m forced to ask myself: What happens if I’ve fertilized all the eggs with Dave’s sperm and, for whatever reason, he’s no longer around? Suppose I’m then lucky enough to find love again and decide to start a family with someone else, and suppose my reproductive system is, in fact, compromised? My only chance then at creating a biological family is with my dead or ex-husband’s kids. Cancer is getting more complicated than it already was.

After discussing all of these what-ifs — and the many tangent sub-fights that naturally ensue (because all you need when you’re fighting cancer is to also fight with your fiancé about your potential future husbands), we decide that regardless of the chances of him dying or us divorcing, we will fertilize them all, because, curveballs aside, we can only truly plan for the future we want.

On the day of extraction, we successfully fertilize six eggs. I thought we’d end up with the potential 20, but apparently we’re pretty lucky. “Six embryos is an excellent outcome!” my doctor tells us with great satisfaction.

Jump ahead three years to August 2012. I’m in complete remission. We’re trying to start a family on our own and have been told there’s nothing to worry about until we’ve been at it for a year. We’re more than happy to enjoy the process, but still, I try not to feel disappointed the first couple of months when my period arrives. We know there isn’t any certainty as to what will happen. With our little embryos residing in a freezer downtown (we’re already paying rent for those darn kids!), we have the peace of mind of knowing we have a backup plan if things don’t work out naturally.

December rolls around and I’m in the mood for a little holiday cheer. I decide to take a pregnancy test before going out for drinks with friends, just in case. It’s positive. Dave and I are so shocked that I take another one. Positive.

What a gift this baby is. I am so happy to discover that my body is still in good shape, that the chemo didn’t do too much damage. My pregnancy has gone perfectly — no complications — and in just a few weeks, we’ll meet our son or daughter. We’re waiting until the birth to find out which it will be. After all the surprises I’ve had in my life, it’s exciting to look forward to something so beautiful.

A version of this article appeared in our September 2013 under the headline “Eggs on ice,” pp.38-41.

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