Last night I went to an amazing event organised by the Eve Appeal, a gynaecological cancer research charity, as part of their gynaecological cancer awareness month. The subject was Talking Taboos and the evening aimed to discuss the things we don’t usually discuss, which can be a barrier to seeking advice about symptoms which lead to gynaecological cancers.
It made me think about how many taboos there are about fertility and treatment, and all the things we find difficult to discuss. It is so hard to break down those barriers when you are feeling sad and isolated, but you are really not alone. One in seven of the population experiences problems when they are trying to get pregnant and there are 3.5 million people in the UK who are currently trying unsuccessfully to conceive. Next time you feel alone, remember how many of us there are out there – and how much we can help one another.
There’s a programme you may be interested in at 11 am tomorrow morning on BBC Radio Four. It’s about what happens when IVF doesn’t work, and it features Lesley Pyne who has been a great source of support and inspiration for many people who’ve had unsuccessful treatment. Lesley, who now helps other women who are looking at living without children, went through unsuccessful IVF herself and was a leading member of the support network More to Life for many years.
How successful is IVF?
The truth is that fertility treatment isn’t always going to work for everyone. For every cycle of IVF, there is an average 25% chance of success. Which means there’s a 75% chance that it won’t work. Cumulative success rates are much better – figures from one clinic released at a Fertility Fairness event earlier this year showed cumulative success rates for women of 37 and under reached 80% over 3 cycles, which is why NICE recommends three cycles as being cost-effective and clinically effective. Age is key here though – if you are older, the chances of success are lower. For women who are 35 and under, the average IVF success rate is 32% but by the time you are in the 38-39 age bracket, that goes down to 20%. Once you reach 43-44, it’s right down to 5% – which means that 95% of cycles for women of that age will not succeed.
When to stop IVF
It can be difficult to know when to stop trying with IVF and there is no right or wrong time to do this, no magic number of cycles. I’ve found that on the whole when people haven’t been successful they do reach a point at which they know that stopping is the right thing to do – sometimes that’s because they’ve run out of money, or because they can’t cope emotionally any more or because their clinic has suggested they should think about stopping. Often it’s just because they’ve got to a point where it feels like the right thing to do.
I’m going to be joining Lesley on BBC Radio Four Woman’s Hour tomorrow morning to discuss IVF and stopping treatment and to look ahead to the documentary later in the morning.
I was apprehensive when I heard Woman’s Hour were covering the topic, as sometimes this debate slides into a them and us battle which paints a picture of exploitative fertility clinics, of a treatment that rarely succeeds and of ill-informed women, when in fact the picture is far more complex. Professor Jardine says she is “enough of a feminist” to believe that women who want fertility treatment at an age when it is less likely to work should be able to make that choice for themselves, but suggests that we need a more open debate about the fact that not everyone is going to come out at the end of treatment with the baby that they long for.
It is true that there is still so much stigma and anxiety around fertility that it makes having an open and honest discussion difficult at times. I’m not sure how we change that – but there is a growing ground swell that is pointing in the right direction.
BBC Woman’s Hour are looking to talk to someone who has had unsuccessful IVF and is no longer pursuing further treatment. This is an urgent request – if you would be willing to talk to them it can be done without using your name, or just with a first name. To find out what would be involved, you can contact Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org
Today’s Woman’s Hour, on BBC Radio Four, featured the story mentioned here yesterday about home sperm tests in a discussion with Tim Child from Oxford Fertility Unit and journalist Victoria Lambert. As expected, the official line on home sperm testing is that you are far better off going to your GP and having it done properly, but the discussion also raised some wider issues.
Jenni Murray seemed quite genuinely surprised when Tim Child referred to infertility as a disease; it’s the idea that not being able to have children is somehow more about lifestyle that fuels the arguments about not funding treatment so it was good to hear Tim Child explain it so clearly.
The other big issue that came up during the discussion was the idea that infertility was somehow a woman’s problem – Victoria Lambert pointed out that although a number of female celebrities have now come out of the closet about their struggles to conceive, there aren’t similar numbers of male celebrities discussing their fertility problems – despite the fact that a fertility problem is just as likely to be down to the male partner as to the female.
I was particularly pleased to hear education being addressed – it’s so true that we focus all our attention on preventing pregnancy when we talk to teenagers about sex education, but in reality the odds show that they are far more likely to have a fertility problem in the future than to get pregnant at 15. Even now, some women are surprised to discover that fertility treatment can’t turn back the biological clock – and it’s a message we need to get across.
It was good to hear these issues aired during National Infertility Awareness Week – if you didn’t hear the programme, you can still catch it here – we must just hope that raising awareness will have a longer-term effect on attitudes and understanding.
The tests, which cost £30 and take ten minutes, claim to give you the opportunity to check whether a man’s sperm is “normal” or “low”. Although the test is apparently not bad at checking the number of sperm in the sample, what it can’t do is test how healthy they are – which is not ideal as having lots of sperm doesn’t necessarily mean that they are capable of fertilising an egg if the majority are abnormal.
Most family doctors will carry out a free sperm test if there are problems conceiving, and as this should be far more accurate I am not quite sure why you’d want to spend £30 on doing it at home when it will be far less accurate – but let’s see what the experts have to say about it tomorrow!