Posts Tagged ‘IUI – Intrauterine Insemination’

Conflicting expert opinions – how do I know who’s right?

Saturday, April 10th, 2010

So, you finally plucked up the courage to go for a second opinion (see also When and how should I seek a second opinion?) and guess what – now you have two or more well-qualified and plausible experts with compelling arguments telling you to do the exact opposite. Maybe one cites empirical research and another doesn’t; maybe they all cite different research. Maybe one sides with the ‘mainstream’ while the others are mavericks – who’s more credible? Who should you trust?

Here’s a classic example encountered by women in their late 30s and 40s with elevated FSH or low AMH (which means they have diminished ovarian reserve – very few eggs left, on the fast track to early menopause). [This example may not relate to your case specifically, but the reflections about how to deal with it are definitely generalisable.]

Specialist A: Once your Day 2/3 FSH is over [insert cut-off; some say 10, some say 12, some say 15, some say 20] the odds of pregnancy through IVF are so incredibly low that IVF is a waste of time altogether, so we would actually not treat you unless you plan to use donor eggs. Just move on already!

Specialist B: Your FSH is elevated, which means you will be a poor responder to stims (Gonal F, etc) and your odds will be lower than other patients your age. It’s like your ovaries are old and going deaf, so we have to give you a very high dose of stims (i.e. ‘shout’ at your ovaries) to get them to wake up and produce any eggs at all. So, I would recommend we put you on maximum dose stims and see what happens. If that doesn’t work we will try mega mega doses.

Specialist C: Your FSH is elevated, you will be a poor responder, but actually, large doses of stims for women like you will often cause your ovaries to shut down and not respond at all. If they do respond, the dose is so high that you will end up with fried eggs that are unlikely to result in a live birth anyway. No, your ovaries are like an old squeaky violin that has to be coaxed gently into life so that it sings the sweetest tune  it possibly can. I recommend a very low-stim IVF, IUI or TI (timed intercourse) cycle with either very low stims right from the start, or just starting with no stims and letting your own [already elevated] FSH drive follicle growth before adding a ‘tiny boost’ to help things on their way.

Yes, intelligent people do hold different views. The field is still growing and not everything is cut-and-dried (and  actually, never will be). They all have theory and evidence to back their explanations …

Specialist A will cite a ton of empirical research showing the inverse correlation between FSH levels and IVF response (number of eggs produced) and success rates. No argument with that.

Specialist B will cite studies showing that the higher the dose, the more eggs patients produce, and the more eggs you retrieve the higher the success rates. It’s a numbers game.

Specialist C will say ah yes, but what those studies don’t show (but mine do) is that, although you get more eggs from higher stims, in older women and those with high FSH, those eggs are of lower quality, less likely to fertilise, and most importantly, less likely to result in live births.

They are all speaking the truth based on what they have seen and read; they all have evidence and experience to back their claims. So, how do we weigh up conflicting arguments and figure out what makes the most sense for us?

First, let’s talk about the big studies (either randomised experimental trials or retrospective studies) showing that Protocol X works (or, helps) better than protocol Y. These are very important to understand, but what YOU need to consider is not “does it help” on AVERAGE across a large study of all sorts of different women; the real question to have in mind when you read (or, discuss with your dr) such research is WHOM does it help (what age, dx, individual characteristics), and under what conditions? And, will it help ME with my unique constellation of age, treatment history, diagnosis and other characteristics?

There are some aspects of fertility treatment that are so nuanced, unpredictable and idiosyncratic that the reality is NO-ONE is ever going to get “the” answer through large study research. Once you’re past the relatively well-established big picture stuff and trying to individualise protocols based on what you see and what you’ve seen in the past, it’s less about big picture science and hypothesis testing and more about human judgement and pattern recognition.

When we’re in this territory, fertility treatment is less a “science” and more of an “art” or a “craft”. You’re having to trust pattern recognition, judgement, intuition and instincts because the research just isn’t there to the level of detail you’d need to be able to make a call. Also, many of the cutting-edge treatments have no more than a plausible theory and a few success cases; the research needed to fully test them is still in progress or may be years away or may never be done because they help such a small segment of the ttc population – but they may still help (see also New and “untested” treatments). Just about all of my ttc journey was in that murky domain -  I was too specific a mix of age, diagnosis and treatment history for enough large studies to have been conducted to clearly indicate what would work in my case. There were no easy answers – there wasn’t a clear right or wrong because the research out there could only predict what would happen across a large group (that included many women NOT like me), not what would happen in MY case (or cases very similar to mine).

When you’re in instinct and judgement and pattern-recognition territory, the only things you can do are arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can muster, listen to the instincts and judgement of the people who have had more experience with cases specifically like your own, and listen to your own instincts and debate these back and forth with your specialist(s). It’s a crap-shoot, but some people have a knack for this stuff …

Or, the simple version for the example above (please just insert your own dilemma and the answer is likely the same): high stims work for some people; low stims work better for others. Which are you? Well, you won’t know until you try because the studies have been done on a huge range of women, only a fraction of whom are like you in various ways – and none of them are exactly like you. So, research like crazy to try and figure out what seems promising for women and couples most like you, and when it’s still not clear how to choose among various plausible options on your shortlist, go with your gut.

See also: New and “untested” treatments for some thoughts about which new-fangled ideas to consider seriously.

How do we know when to move on?

Friday, April 9th, 2010

“Moving on” can mean a lot of different things:

  • stopping IUI or IVF and switching to ttc naturally and/or with alternative medicine
  • opting for donor egg IVF (or donor sperm IUI or IVF) instead of trying more with your own eggs (or sperm)
  • trying with donor embryos (these are frozen embryos left over from other couples’ IVF cycles who have had success and have finished building their families)
  • pursuing adoption (domestic or international) or foster parenting
  • deciding to live child-free or (in the case of secondary infertility) with just the one(s) you have

But how do we know when it’s time to move on to the next option? And, when should we (and when should we NOT) be making those choices?

It might help if I share a bit of my story from the very lowest points of my ttc journey.

I think one of the worst parts of my whole ttc journey was right when we found out that our miracle natural conception after 2 years ttc#2 was in fact, at 7 weeks, a blighted ovum. At that point I was almost 42, where they say your fertility falls off a cliff, and I really felt like this pregnancy was my last chance slipping through my fingers. I had six failed IVFs under my belt, 2 cancelled for poor response, 4 that had gone to egg collection, a total of 9 embies transferred, no leftover frosties, 4-5 other natural conceptions that were chem pgs (mostly) and now this 7-week miscarriage.

Every BFN and especially every loss was a major low point for me. Not only did life/reality totally suck; estrogen levels at the end of a failed cycle or failed pregnancy are in freefall and that makes anyone feel really really crappy. So, the one thing I learned is NO negative decision making while climbing out of the vortex. But once out …

It’s a very personal decision about how much more of this you can take. The costs are high on every level (physical, emotional, financial), and you lose major chunks of your life clawing through this stuff. Your career suffers, relationships with friends and family suffer, and if you have one or more children already there’s this awful feeling that you are losing precious time with them while you are consumed with cycles and blood tests and scans and peesticks and phantom pregnancy symptoms and researching next options. And infecting them with the sadness and depression that comes with a long struggle with infertility.

As one of my NZ board buddies pointed out, it is really important to sit down with your partner regularly through the ttc process (and with a good counsellor, if you choose) and ask yourselves some very difficult questions such as:

  • What does my partner want, what do I want, how do we resolve things if there are different goals? (this can change at different stages of the process)
  • What’s the impact of this treatment (or yet another treatment) on our relationship? How do we stay strong together as a couple?
  • What’s the impact on our lives if we don’t have children after [insert number of] IVF/treatments? What’s the vision for our future without children?
  • [and I’d add one for the secondary IFers] What’s the impact of this treatment (or yet another treatment) on any child(ren) we have? What is the cost to their quality of life of having their parents going through this gruelling process? How well are we ensuring they get the love and nurturing they need while we try for a sibling? How long/often can we keep trying before the negative impact on our child(ren) makes it no longer worth it?

The financial drain is very stressful on top of everything else. It was hard to take on much work while having to avoid travel during only partially predictable cycle dates, so income can be down anyway. We were lucky to get some help from family and the bank manager, but everyone has a limit to how far they can stretch before they are really in trouble. My philosophy was that I could make money after menopause but not eggs – and that any resulting child would cost far more over a lifetime than a few IVFs. I needed to get to 50 with no more regrets, whichever way it went. So we kept on, making the decision after each cycle – at least a couple of weeks after the BFN or the D&C (no sooner).

For me, the decision about whether to move on was all about whether I thought we were out of plausible ideas and just spinning on some hamster wheel. But even after 6 IVFs I still felt like we had ideas to try that we hadn’t tried before. Thankfully we had a specialist who would work with us to try anything plausible. And go figure, after no success in 2 years age 40 to 42+ (and high FSH to boot), IVF#7 at age 42.3 gave us not just one baby but fraternal twins.

Unfortunately, though, success isn’t going to be the outcome for everyone who persists. I knew I had to be at peace with eventual failure. I wanted to look back after menopause and know that we had tried everything that we could, and that we did it without sacrificing our relationship with the one we were already so lucky to have (and who we were told would never happen either).

Early on in the process, after my first IVF at age 40 was unceremoniously cancelled for ZERO response, my first thought was “Oh well, that protocol (microdose flare) didn’t work; now there’s really only one other for me to try (antagonist). If that’s a zero response too, then that’s that for IVF. Simple.” If that had happened, the choice would have been very clear to me – ditch the IVF and try naturally with acupuncture, herbs and supplements (we’d 99% decided against the other family building options already; my tubes were fine and we had only mild MFI). In some ways that scenario felt like a relief because it was unambiguous and the treatment less taxing on many levels. But on IVF#2 I did actually GET a response, though not a great one. From then it was a case of hunting for the Goldilocks (just right) protocol, and giving up on IVF once it was clear we’d exhausted all the plausible ideas (or our emotional capacity for going through the process).

It’s a very personal decision for each person or couple about when to move on and which options you would consider. My advice (and I know a lot of people would advise the exact opposite) would be to NOT decide in advance how many cycles you’ll do or whether a particular cycle is definitely your last shot at anything – it puts a LOT of stress on the so-called “last” cycle.

Another very good read on this topic is Janey’s post on the Fertility NZ blog. Janey’s been through the IVF mill and is reaching the end of the journey, but unfortunately without a baby in her arms. Here are some snippets from her very real reflections …

We are all at such individual, personal stages in our journey with creating our own families. This could be trying IVF for the first time, or the sixth because you’re a “poor responder” – how dare they label us that – or having had a miscarriage, or having realised that it’s time to accept our shape of ‘family’ might include dogs, step children, and a trips to India. I’m at the later end of the spectrum. It’s immense.

I no longer want to hear about people getting pregnant, or want to support another friend through IVF. It’s too heartbreaking. The lovely people at Fertility NZ have compassionately identified this, and are saying, “That’s okay”. How nice to feel valid, in a journey that is anything but valid or fair.

=> Read Janey’s whole post and the 30+ comments from women in the same boat.

As another board buddy said, “Getting on the infertility treadmill is easy – its when to hop off that is the problem.” So true.

Our IVF/IUI/TI cycle just failed … What should we be asking at the review?

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

After all the waiting to GET on the waiting list and then all the waiting ON the waiting list, finally you got to try the “big guns.” You’ve somehow overcome your fear of needles, vaginal scans and then (for IVF) the dreaded egg collection procedure; you’ve survived the harrowing 2ww … and it’s a BFN. Or a chemical pregnancy. Or a pregnancy and then a miscarriage.

After all that anxiety, fear, hope and expectation, a failed cycle is just devastating. You’re booked for a review appointment with your specialist – but what should you be asking about now?

The most important question, of course, is WHY your cycle failed. There could be many possible explanations, some of which are just guesses and some of which are backed by concrete evidence or could be investigated further.

You don’t want to go through the expense and stress of another IVF cycle and only afterwards find out there was something else you should have addressed first. Here’s a quick list of other things you should be sure to have checked out if you haven’t already:

  • Male Factors. A full semen analysis is necessary – not just counts/motility/morphology but also tests for antisperm antibodies and SCSA (tests for DNA fragmentation).
  • Polyps and Fibroids. Uterine polyps and fibroids, even if they’re small, can influence the menstrual cycle and can interfere with implantation. They can typically be seen via ultrasound and can be removed through a relatively simple surgical procedure.
  • Thyroid Issues. Thyroid issues can impact fertility and need to be ruled out as a contributing factor. A thorough thyroid test needs to include TSH, free T3/T4 and anti-thyroid antibodies.
  • Ureaplasma. Ureaplasma is an infection for which you should be tested. “Ureaplasma may cause the formation of sperm antibodies and an inflammation of the uterine lining, either of which may interfere with implantation of the embryo” (Source)
  • Factor V Leiden. Testing for Factor V Leiden is also important. “Factor V Leiden is a relatively common hereditary blood coagualtion disorder and can lead to stillbirth or unexplained recurrent miscarriage” (Source)
  • Hysterosalpingogram (HSG). An HSG is a test to determine whether the fallopian tubes are open. Even if you’re doing IVF this is important because you could have a hydrosalpinx, which is a blocked tube that leaks toxic fluid into the uterus and can affect implantation. (More info)
  • Recurrent miscarriage/recurrent implantation failure testing panel. In New Zealand, the usual procedure is to run a set of blood tests (on the female partner) such as:
    • Coagulation screen
    • Thrombophilia screen
    • Autoantibody screen incl.
    • antithyroid antibodies,
    • anti-gliaden antibodies
    • Factor V Leiden
    • Karotype
    • MTHFR mutation
    • Anticardiolipin antibodies
    • Lupus anticoagulant
    • … and a karotype for the man

Follow this link for a very comprehensive list of possible causes of recurrent miscarriage that can be investigated systematically if you need to do some more serious digging.

  • Endometriosis. If you have period pain that requires more than a couple of Panadol (or any other of the possible symptoms of endometriosis), ask for a laparoscopy to investigate. Endometriosis is quite common and often missed or misdiagnosed, e.g. because women think their period pain is normal. For more information, check out Endometriosis New Zealand’s excellent website.

OK, nice laundry list, but what should I be asking my doctor?

Before your review appointment, if you did IVF, call the embryologist who worked with you during your cycle and ask him or her what they thought about the quality and maturity of your eggs, the fertilisation rates and the quality and development of your embryos. If you can, it’s best to do this soon after (or, the day you go in for) embryo transfer so that it’s fresh in the embryologist’s mind. Pump them for any information you can get.

When you see your doctor, start with an open-ended question about what he or she thought went well in your cycle and what didn’t. Summarise what the embryologist told you as well and ask the doctor to comment.

Your next question should be around the various other possible causes of cycle failure listed in the bullet points above. How many of these have we eliminated as a possible cause, how did we do so, and which of them should we investigate before leaping into another cycle? Make sure you study these beforehand and think whether you recognise any relevant symptoms.

You may find yourself in a situation where the doctor pronounces you have an egg quality problem. Now, this is a difficult one because, from a Western medicine perspective it’s seen as untreatable and just the hand you’ve been dealt. Further, this is really little more than an “eyeball” assessment, assuming you haven’t done a PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) IVF cycle where the embryos are actually tested for chromosome abnormalities. Visual egg and embryo quality is correlated with chromosomal normality/abnormality and pregnancy rates, but it isn’t a direct assessment of these things. You can definitely have great looking eggs/embryos that are abnormal. And there are a few instances where very scrappy, sad-looking eggs and embryos turn into perfectly normal babies, but unfortunately not very often.

If you do get the “bad eggs” speech, there are a couple of questions you should raise. One is whether you can try a different protocol that might be better suited to your delicate eggs. For example, some specialists argue (and have evidence) that higher doses of stims can “fry” some women’s eggs, so that a lower dose may be more gentle and damage them less. [I personally had a dramatic improvement in embryo quality when I dropped my dose from 450IU to 150IU, and I know others who have experienced the same.]

The other thing to insist is that “bad eggs” isn’t just assumed to be the ONLY cause of your failure. Even if it’s true and you are looking at moving forward with donor eggs, you need to be sure you don’t have uterine or autoimmune issues or endometriosis (etc) that could jeopardise the success of that cycle.

Most fertility specialists in New Zealand don’t really buy into the idea of alternative medicines, but if you’ve been given the “bad eggs” or “old eggs” speech, I’d strongly recommend reading the following piece by Dr. Randine Lewis about the Chinese medicine perspectives on “poor egg quality” and whether there’s anything you can do to address it.

This website/blog also has several posts on acupuncture and Chinese medicine – see the menu at left to find items on that topic.

What are the main IVF protocols used in NZ?

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Why is this important?

First, it’s good to know roughly what’s out there, and that there is more than one option, so that you can get your specialist to explain why this one and why not that.

Second – if you don’t do well on one protocol you may do fine on another.

Some women will need a few tries to find their “Goldilocks” (just right) protocol, but because most of us have only limited finances and stamina, it’s important to make sure you’re satisfied the first one is a good choice for you.

Basically there are three main protocols used by NZ clinics (plus a few variations, which I’ll try to add later):

1. The ‘long’ protocol (default for young women and those with normal FSH; not generally used on high FSHers unless they are quite young, and seldom on anyone over 40 because it can easily oversuppress those with diminished ovarian reserve).

Buserelin for about 10 days to downregulate (put you into temporary menopause), then the Buserelin dose is lowered and you start stims (Gonal F injections), stim for about 10 days with scans and blood tests every 2-3 days. When your follies are ready, you are instructed to take a trigger injection and turn up for egg collection about 36 hours later.

2. The microdose flare – usual starting protocol for high FSHers and women over 40. It’s less likely to oversuppress poor responders than the long protocol.

Usually but not always starts with a course of BCPs (birth control pills) for about three weeks, then you stop for a couple of days, then start your microdose course of Buserelin (this gives your ovaries a kickstart or ‘flare’), then a day or two later you start your stims (Gonal F injections). As with the long protocol, you stim for about 10 days with scans and blood tests every 2-3 days. When your follies are ready, you are instructed to take a trigger injection and turn up for egg collection about 36 hours later.

3. The antagonist protocol – another option for high FSHers, poor responders and older women. Often the first choice protocol for these women, but in NZ it’s typically tried only after the flare protocol has given a weak response because the drugs are cheaper for the flare.

Usually starts with a mild pre-cycle suppression course of estradiol valerate (E2V) from CD21 or 7dpo the previous cycle (you can ttc on your own the previous cycle; this won’t affect a pregnancy); when AF (your period) arrives this is counted as Day 1 and you may be asked to go in for a baseline scan to check that you have no cysts, your antral follicles are ready to go and no big dominant follicles; on CD2 you start stimming, having bloods and scans every 2-3 days. When your lead follicle reaches 14mm, you start Cetrotide (the antagonist that stops you ovulating too soon). When your follies are ready, you are instructed to take a trigger injection and turn up for egg collection about 36 hours later.

There’s another called the Colorado protocol, which is a variation on the antagonist. I don’t have all the details on this and how it’s done in New Zealand, but if someone would like to email me or post it as a comment, that would be a big help!

If you are a poor responder, have high FSH, low AMH, a low antral follicle count, or have been told you have diminished ovarian reserve (DOR), follow this link to check out protocols used for poor responders.

And here’s another link in case you want to know more about the various IVF, IUI and TI (timed intercourse) cycle medications and what they do.