One of the most difficult things about living with fertility problems is the loneliness and isolation you can feel as everyone around you seems to be getting pregnant effortlessly. If you don’t tell other people what you are going through, you get questions about when you are going to have children and warnings that you don’t want to leave it too late. If you do tell people, you can end up with lots of advice you could do without (“why don’t you just relax/get a dog/go on holiday…”).
Last night, I facilitated a fertility group for the charity Fertility Network UK in South East London and it really struck me, as it does every time we meet, how beneficial it can be to spend some time with other people who really understand how you are feeling and who know what it is like. Fertility Network has groups meeting across the UK, mainly run by volunteers like me, which offer a haven for anyone experiencing fertility problems. It’s a unique opportunity to be with people who share similar experiences and to be able to talk openly and honestly about how you are feeling.
It’s National Fertility Week and there’s lots of work going on to raise awareness about many important fertility-related issues, but one of the most important messages for me is that you don’t need to go through this alone. There are opportunities to meet other people who can offer support, and the groups aren’t miserable or depressing, but rather an opportunity to help yourself to feel less lonely. There are 3.5 million people living with fertility problems in the UK and meeting some of the others may be just what you need.
Figures released today by Public Health England show that there has been a drop in the number of women having regular cervical screening tests. They show that around three million women under 50 have not had a smear test for more than three years, and another million women in the 50 – 64 age bracket have not had a test for more than five and a half years. These rates are at their lowest levels for almost twenty years. This matters to anyone worried about their fertility as treatment for cervical cancer may leave you unable to have children in the future.
It is vital that we all go for regular smear tests as cervical cancer as the screening test is estimated to save more than 4,000 lives every year. Having regular screening means that if there are any unusual changes in the cells in your cervix, this will be identified at an early stage and if you need treatment, it can be given early to stop cancer developing. You can read more about cervical cancer screening on the NHS website and there is information about screening and cervical cancer on Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust and the Eve Appeal’s websites.
Pregnancy announcements are never easy when you’re trying to conceive, but one which has swamped the media and is this morning taking up endless pages of many newspapers is particularly difficult to avoid. What makes this announcement even more challenging is that the Royal couple were only married a matter of months ago, and seem to have conceived with effortless ease.
It was unfortunate that the announcement came during Baby Loss Awareness Week, on a day when many people were preparing to light candles for the Wave of Light in memory of their own losses. Although the couple have been criticised online for this, the most likely reason is that they simply didn’t know the significance of the day.
The endless discussions about the Royal pregnancy are going to go on – and on, and on – during the next few months. One of the best ways of dealing with that is to spend time with other people who understand how you feel about this because they share similar experiences. Why not try one of Fertility Network UK’s fertility groups which run across the UK? They’re an ideal opportunity to meet others and can be really empowering. I admit I am biased about this as I run the group in South East London, but that’s because I know how much it can help. Being with other people who understand, and who share your conflicted feelings about pregnancy announcements can make all the difference. It can help you to realise that you are not having a personality change and becoming an unkind person, but are reacting in a perfectly normal way to an emotional challenge. You can find details of all FNUK’s groups here, and it there isn’t a group near you, they can offer other support too – have a look at their website
Taking place in St Mary’s Church in Rotherhithe, the concert is with Dunajska Kapelye, a trio who play beautiful gypsy and Eastern European music and are led by one of London’s most respected violinists, Polish Piotr Jordan. The concert will feature plaintive Gypsy ballads, tub-thumping Romanian wedding dances, elements of tango and klezmer. It promises to be a wonderful evening – and great to be able to be raising money to support such important charities with their work at the same time.
A new study suggests that “vigorous” exercise may be linked to an improved chance of getting pregnant, but that more gentle exercise doesn’t seem to make the same difference. So, what counts as “vigorous”? Apparently that’s exercise like jogging, running, football or aerobics which leaves you out of breath, and you have to do more than four hours a week!
You can read more about it on the NHS Choices website – and the results are interesting. If you are obese, the vigorous exercise thing doesn’t work, but instead more moderate exercise such as walking does. As NHS Choices points out, assessing how likely it is that these results are actually widely applicable and correct can be difficult as the results were slightly odd. It isn’t clear why exercise only counts if you do more than four hours a week, or why walking makes a difference to obese or overweight women but not to any others. It is also not clear what they women ate, or whether their weight changed during the study as these factors could make a difference – as could any existing fertility problems so it may be that one of these other factors was in fact responsible.
It does, however, add to the growing body of evidence that keeping active is a good thing!
I’ve heard from so many people recently who are pregnant after fertility problems who are full of anxiety and feel their pregnancies, which ought to be joyful, are being tainted by the worries from the time spent trying to conceive. Women then blame themselves once again for not being “normal”, but this is a perfectly understandable response to finally finding yourself pregnant after fertility problems. You may find it hard to have faith that things are going to be all right when you have become so accustomed to them not being all right.
The other resource which may be helpful is a book I wrote because I felt so strongly about the lack of understanding for people who are pregnant after fertility problems. It’s called Precious Babies – Pregnancy, Birth and Parenting after Infertility and you can buy it from Amazon. It goes from the positive pregnancy test right through birth and early parenthood to interviews with adults conceived by IVF and I hope it helps you realise that you are not alone and that others feel the same way after fertility problems.
For anyone with any experience at all of fertility problems, there’s a general understanding that probably the worst thing someone can say to you is “just relax…”, and yet this is the advice a TV doctor gave on ITV’s Lorraine programme. Dr Hilary Jones apparently said to a caller who was asking for advice after three unsuccessful rounds of IVF; “What I would say is, and this is probably the hardest thing to do, is just relax about it. There have been so many people that I’ve known who’ve gone through several rounds of IVF and nothing happens. And when they’ve given up, and gotten on with their lives, it miraculously happens naturally… Sometimes stress itself can have a very negative effect. So try living your life as normally as you can.”
I suppose this just shows why you should stick to asking fertility specialists for advice rather than a TV doctor, but there has been an understandable backlash from fertility patients and the charity Fertility Network UK. There is certainly a lesson to be learned for TV producers about the risks of getting a GP, who is by nature a generalist rather than a specialist, to offer advice to those who have already been treated by experts in any field of medicine. But should any doctor, even if they are a GP rather than a specialist, be telling people to “just relax” or suggesting that stress might be to blame for infertility? Apart from anything else, we all know that fertility problems cause huge amounts of stress – and that telling someone who is trying to conceive to “just relax” is about as helpful as telling them to get a dog, go on holiday or any of the other helpful advice that non-experts in the field like to pass on.
There is another problem here though, and that’s to do with blame. Suggesting that your stress levels might be responsible for your blocked fallopian tubes or endometriosis is nonsense, and yet many people do end up feeling that it’s their fault they can’t conceive in a culture which encourages you to believe that you can make the difference to outcomes by thinking positive, clean eating or complementary therapies. The truth is that none of these things are going to unblock your tubes or get rid of endometriosis, and for a medical professional to suggest that getting pregnant might miraculously happen naturally if you just relax is quite bizarre.
If you are interested in a role in the world of women’s health, there are some fabulous opportunities open at the moment. For anyone looking to volunteer, the Women’s Network which I chair at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has some spaces. It’s a fantastic group of dynamic women committed to improving women’s health experiences, and members must be able to commit at least two full days at the College (in central London) every three months when meetings take place. New members of the Network will be expected to become involved in the work of a committees relating to RCOG’s work too, and to have regular email contact. It is a big ask, but it’s an extremely rewarding and interesting role and a chance to make a real difference. There are more details here
There are also two jobs at the charity Fertility Network UK. One is a short-term cover role for a co-ordinator for the charity for the whole of England, which is an amazing job. The other is for a co-ordinator for More to Life, the part of the charity which works for people who are childless, after stopping treatment or deciding not to have it – a really important role.There are some fabulous people working for the charity and you will have great colleagues. If you are interested, you can find out more here.
One discussion theme which comes up now and again on fertility websites and forums is whether to put back one embryo or two when you are having IVF, and there are always people advising others to “go for two” because it will double the chances of getting pregnant if you “don’t mind” having twins. For anyone who is struggling to conceive, the idea of twins can seem hugely attractive – an instant family in one go – but it’s important to be clear that multiple pregnancy is the biggest risk from IVF treatment for you and for your baby.
The best advice to anyone who is thinking about this as a dilemma is that you should be guided by the embryologists at your clinic, assuming you are having treatment here in the UK where your health and that of your babies is always put first when it comes to numbers of embryos to transfer. Most women should have one embryo put back, and two are only considered if you have had repeated unsuccessful attempts at IVF in the past, if you are older or if your embryos look less likely to implant. Putting two embryos back will not double your chances of getting pregnant. In fact, when single embryo transfer is based on your embryologist’s advice, it should not reduce your chances of getting pregnant and if you would have got pregnant with twins, you will still get pregnant with one embryo. A multiple pregnancy is more likely to end in miscarriage but this is not always considered when people are making decisions about how many embryos to transfer.
Although we all know lots of twins who are flourishing and healthy, we don’t hear so much about those who aren’t. The increased risk of miscarriage, and of problems for the babies who are more likely to be born prematurely and may have disabilities or long term problems is very real. There are also risks for the mother such as high blood pressure and pre eclampsia and haemorrhage. You can read more about this here on the HFEA website.
This is why the best fertility clinics – those who really have your interests at heart – have a good success rate and a low multiple pregnancy rate.
I’m going to be running a new fertility group for Fertility Network in Greenwich in South East London which you are welcome to join! We are having our first meeting on the evening of Tuesday March 27. It will be great to see you if you are able to come along!
I first went to a group when I was going through IVF myself and found it hugely helpful to meet other people who understood how we felt. I was a bit uncertain about going along – I didn’t think I was the sort of person who went to group meetings – but in fact it wasn’t gloomy or depressing or any of the other things I’d expected. If anything, it was actually quite uplifting to be in a room full of people who weren’t going to stat asking questions about when we were going to have a baby and why we were leaving it so late…
I’ve run a number of different fertility groups over the years since then and have seen at first hand the benefits they can bring. So why not come along and join us and find out for yourselves…
You can join our brand new Facebook page to find out more or you can get in touch via the contact page here – and hope to see you on the 27th.