Week 19: This is us

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Yesterday I finally started to feel like this family of three thing could actually stick.

We had our mid-pregnancy ultrasound / anatomy scan and got to see the Little Wookiee in all the glory. A few pregnant or new mom friends had told me about how incredible this ultrasound would be, and I wasn’t disappointed. I didn’t know most of what I was looking at, but seeing sections of LW’s brain, blood flow into the umbilical cord… it is remarkable the detail made possible by technology.

Watching LW flip around, albeit being pretty uncooperative to the tech, I was smitten. Grown from the 5BB embaby into this real thing. Squirming around at pressure of the ultrasound wand.

It was a little mind-blowing, though, to watch the flipping on the screen — and know that movement in happening inside of me — and not be able to feel it yet. I think I’ve felt LW once or twice to date — just a brief twinge like some of the books describe — but nothing more definitive yet. Seeing it happen was pretty crazy.

We got a great report on LW’s growth, thankfully. I’d started to get a little more comfortable, and a little less anxious, when my belly started to pop about a week and a half ago. I was ready to pick out the nursery paint. I was spending more than half my time in maternity clothes. But not knowing what was really happening in there was still intimidating. I felt like I was standing on the line of a safe zone to just peer over it, but I wouldn’t step. It was unknown territory.

My husband and I had a conversation just this past weekend about expanding the bubble of people who know we’re expecting. We haven’t been keeping it quiet necessarily, but we weren’t eagerly awaiting a magic date to post it to Facebook either (I kind of have my own internal issues about why and how people share things on Facebook anyway, not to take away from anyone who does choose to make that sort of announcement. I’m just on the fence about it). When pressed by family about such an announcement I’d said, “just let us get through the anatomy scan first.” To me, it felt like a necessary step. Another box to check. A little bit closer to viability. To becoming a family of three.

My husband saw the scan as a formality. Another box, sure, but another chance to see LW. Because things are okay. Everything is okay now, he’d say.

I didn’t disagree, really. In my gut, anyway. But I needed the reassurance of a doctor saying, “it’s all good.” When I heard that, I mentally checked the box and felt better.

(It’s worth noting here that when the doctor came into the room, he didn’t immediately put me at ease. He opened with “As you know, PGS testing isn’t foolproof…” My eyes widened and panic rose. He’d said several more sentences before he registered my reaction and knew to say, “I really should have led with everything looks great…” Sweet jesus. He was a lovely doctor, though.)

Last night, following the ultrasound, my husband checked with me before expanding the bubble. I said okay. It felt like a big deal for me. I’m getting there. To a see a family of three. Us.

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When your anxiety is as high as your estrogen

My husband called it “estroxiety.”

It is transfer week, which means it is crawllllling by at a snail’s pace. Aside from the side effects of my BFF Estrace — of which I have many — my mental health feels a bit like a teeter-totter. One moment: OMG I AM SO EXCITED THIS IS GOING TO FINALLY WORK ALL CAPS EVERYWHERE! The next:

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Actual footage of me?

Don’t get me wrong, not going into an embryo transfer blindly for once is a welcome change. I know my doctor (well, actually, not my Peyton Manning doctor because he will be on vacation) will place little PGS-normal 5BB in my now-optimized for receptivity uterus. Because my ERA test revealed that my lining is 12-hours pre-receptive, we’ve moved my PIO shots to the mornings, giving me an extra dose before the actual transfer. The same biopsy revealed no recurrence of endometritis either. So, basically, my uterus is as ready to grow a baby as it probably ever has been. I’m set up for success. Even my clinic’s internal stats on a a PGS-normal resulting in pregnancy and a live birth are killer.

And yet, the pressure is getting to me. My stomach is doing flip-flops. I’m not falling asleep easily and sleeping fitfully. My brain keeps telling me that normal embryos fail all the time. I’ve had anxiety before transfers in the past, but this is so heightened. I’m so hyper-aware that it could be successful and that’s just not my normal. I’ve had nothing but failure to point to; I’ve settled in and stayed awhile. As miserable as infertility makes me, it is my normal. I’m not resigned to it, but it is always there. It’s been the focus of my life for more than five years and it has become my every day. Popping Estrace pills morning, noon and night; the sore injection sites from the PIO; lying back and putting my feet in the stirrups for internal ultrasounds every few days. This is my life. It sucks so much, but there’s something that has become so comfortable, too.

Like many Type-A people, if I’m not good at something almost immediately I tend not to like it very much. I despise mediocrity in myself. When I was eight years old I played the saxophone for a little under a year. I was pretty terrible, and I quit because I knew I wouldn’t ever be first (or even second) chair in the elementary school band. Instead I did something I was much better at (cheerleading [current me still doesn’t fully comprehend how I was a cheerleader my entire childhood]), and spent the next 10 years engrossed in that. Captaining teams, winning an award or two and being pretty good at something like the Type-A in me wanted.

Somehow, I’ve never quit this. I’ve pushed through even though I am clearly terrible at creating babies. Infertility has taught me an awful lot about failure. And, in turn, resilience. It has absolutely shaped who I am as a 36-year-old woman.

With success as close as it has probably ever been, it is out of my hands now (and soon to be in my uterus). I have, officially, all the feels.

Also, f#*k you, Estrace.

Infertility grief

And then there were two: PGS results

After the cliffhanger of my last post, I’ll go ahead and immediately spoil the ending of this one with the title. We have two PGS-normal embryos.

TWO. NORMAL. EMBRYOS.

I felt a little like this:

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Okay, rewind… As of day 3, I had 14. I knew well enough to know that over the next two and three days, the lab would see a drop-off of at least half, and I was fine with that. The entire goal of Stim Part Deux: Electric Boogaloo was quality over quantity. Quantity, in my previous experience, hasn’t made a damn bit of difference for me. Five of my six embryos from my first stim cycle didn’t stick, and Kristoff, the lone embryo still frozen, had the lowest grading of that pack. The odds weren’t in his favor.

Quality, of course, is much harder to measure. I’d done the work I could do to potentially improve the quality of my much-older-than-my-age-and-AMH eggs by losing 35 pounds. But, other than feeling better than I had in a long time, I didn’t know if that would prove fruitful fertility-wise.

When day 5 arrived I think I stared at my phone all day. For previous updates the lab had emailed me in the morning, so by lunchtime I was a ball of anxiety. Did this mean none had progressed? Was the news so bad that the lab would have my doctor break it to me? What day is it? Do I still remember how to count to five? By 3:00, I simply couldn’t stand it anymore and emailed the greatest nurse on the planet. Hey if you could just do me a solid and walk down the hall to the lab… She was like calm down, crazy, since you’re doing PGS the lab will wait until tomorrow to give you the final results of how many made it to blastocyst to be biopsied.

“However, you have 2 for biopsy today 🙂 And likely many more for tomorrow. Yay!!!!”

There was crying.

Day 6 went by so damn slowly. But then the email came…

Five.

Plus, Kristoff had survived the thaw for biopsy and continued to develop.

Even more crying. So much crying that my husband only understood every seven words that I said on the phone when I called with the news.

Six embryos held all of my hopes and dreams: 5BB, 5BB, 6AA, 5AA, 5CB and 5BC. No pressure, kids, but my entire future is riding on you…

The nine days between hearing that number from the lab and getting the call from the greatest nurse on the planet with our PGS results were absolutely on-par with the two-week wait. I did my best to stay busy and keep my mind occupied, but if I’m being real those results were the only thing of substance I could think about.

On the afternoon when my nurse called, she admitted she was very scared to tell me there were two normal embryos. Two of six is a poor ratio, all things considered. But as soon as she said two, everything else fell away. I’d save the questions about the others for another day. When you’re terrified that you’re going to hear zero, two sounds like a million. I was so unbelievably grateful for two.

Lots more crying. All the crying.

So here we are… Two. It’s my new favorite number.

Ps… Kristoff wasn’t one of the normals. And she’s actually a Kristoffina.

Stim Part Deux: Electric Boogaloo

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Friends, the day has arrived (finally): Day one of my stim cycle. Let’s grow some follicles and make some good quality eggs, shall we?

Pending the results of this morning’s progesterone check, I begin Lupron injections this evening. Here’s a fun refresher on the types of side effects I may experience during this phase of the cycle: fatigue, increased sweating, headaches, acne, trouble sleeping… Oh boy! During my first cycle nearly two years ago, I wrote about the frequent urination hitting me hard by day 8. Guaranteed that one pops up again.

Knowing what to expect physically and emotionally during a stimulation doesn’t make me excited to start injecting myself with hormones every night, but it does give me some comfort. One of the most difficult mental hurdles last time I did this was overcoming the fear of the unknown. Perhaps no two cycles are alike, though?

Mentally, where am I? That is, of course, more complicated. Knowing that I can get through to the egg retrieval is one thing. I can handle tired, peeing a lot and crying at the drop of a hat. After the retrieval, though, the next six days are out of my hands. I’ll wait to hear how many eggs fertilize and grow to blastocyst stage. Then the embryos are biopsied and shipped for PGS and I’ll wait some more. That wait, though… that’s going to be the toughest one. It determines our next few months, our entire path for moving forward. Will there be any normal embryos? If so, how many? If not, how will I feel? Will I want to move right into adoption, or will I need to grieve the loss of my fertility?

None of these questions will have answers for at least the next month. As we get dangerously close to April, no less. The worst month of the year.

So stay tuned for some fun!

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(I really love Happy Endings. Can you tell?)

Understanding PGS: Why we’re doing it

PGS (pre-implantation genetic screening) is a complicated topic. While I knew we would opt to use PGS during our upcoming stim cycle prior to a transfer very early on, I didn’t know much about it. I’d watched an animated video on the website of the laboratory that my clinic uses for PGS, and it felt a bit Schoolhouse Rock-esque, without the clever puns and music. This video could have used those. I felt like I knew the basics of what happens to the embryo/blastocyst during the PGS testing, the lab counts chromosomes, … blah, blah blah… and then following testing my husband and I would see a report on our embyros each characterized into two neat little columns — normal or abnormal.

At least some of that was correct.

I’ll say before I move on that I am not usually one of those infertiles that spends hours in the middle of the night on message boards comparing IVF stories with other women. I’m not passing judgement on the women that do that, mind you. For me, and my mental health, I have to sometimes turn down the fire hose of infertility information. I very much pick and choose when I consult Dr. Google or the message boards because when I know too much, my anxiety hits dangerous (read: 1947-era padded room, straight jacket) levels. Too much research can cripple me. I try to be well-informed about my treatment options and protocols, and I think I am, but I know my limits. I’m good without knowing that Jane Doe in Oregon also had a Lupron-down protocol resulting in 20 eggs at her retrieval and then experienced this freak thing… yeah. I, personally, don’t need to know. I advocate for myself but I also trust my doctor and the greatest nurse on the planet.

So while I knew I’d move forward with PGS almost regardless of my research, I still wanted to learn more about it. If anything, I wanted to confirm that I was making the right call about doing it, and gain confidence that we’d have some clear answers after the tests were complete.

Where did I land? Well, I will say that PGS is (still) the absolute right step for us at this point (more on that in a bit). But, dayum, I got schooled.

First, all hail FertilityIQ. Their online course on PGS is the absolute best, most comprehensive resource on the subject I’ve found. If you’re considering this as part of your treatment plan, take 30 minutes to watch their helpful videos and read through their detailed written material. Deborah and Jake, the founders of the site, host the videos and I’d like to be friends with them. They’re clearly knowledgeable (fertility clinic vets so they totally get it), but they also include interviews with doctors on both sides of the aisle in this PGS debate. The course has easy to understand patient examples, visuals and just a ton of great information. Honestly, it’s not only worth your time, but in my opinion you owe it to yourself to understand the intricacies of such a complex fertility topic.

This post isn’t sponsored by the site, nor do I have any relationship to it, I am just a big fan. Also, I probably don’t need to mention this but I am NOT. A. DOCTOR. I am a fellow infertile sharing her experience. 

Remember when I said that I thought after PGS all of our created embryos (and Kristoff) would be put into two nice little black and white buckets? Nooope. Because mosaic embryos are a thing. As a woman lumped into the unexplained infertility category I’ll say they are a potentially confusing, frustrating thing. I don’t need more unexplained science, world! I need answers. The FertilityIQ videos and text were extremely helpful in explaining not only what mosaicism is, but that there are questions I need to ask my clinic about their policies on identifying these gray area embryos. (Aside: And because I now knew to ask this question I got an answer about my clinic’s policy! #winning)

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What this all comes down to is that I’m glad I did the research on PGS. While the idea of mosaic embryos does kinda make me want to cry in the corner, simply because it’s just more uncertainty when I’ve had my fill of that, I’m glad I’m armed with this information to better advocate for myself and my future blastocysts. I can ask the questions of my clinic, talk to a genetic counselor if I’m in a position where we only have mosaic embryos available, and then decide what’s right for us. If any of that happens.

Here’s why PGS is right for us at this moment in time: I’m 36. I’ve had two miscarriages, a chemical pregnancy and three failed embryo transfers (with a total of five embryos). Other than chronic endometritis, three years of infertility treatments and countless tests have not brought us any closer to a baby. This road is ending for us soon, with or without a biological child. I’m tired. We’ve reached our debt ceiling. PGS will allow us the best possible opportunity to have that baby. We will carry more debt with us because of it, but we’re going for broke this time (perhaps literally as well as figuratively). This is it.

If there’s one thing I feel really positive about heading into this last stim cycle, it’s the decision to have our embryos tested. And honestly, I really need that sliver of hope.

Infertility is really just a crap-ton of waiting

I’m a few days from starting my period. While nothing tops the two-week wait (TWW) on the anxiety scale, the time waiting to start your next IVF cycle is also stressful. In early January my husband and I repeated our lab work, and I had my 8,000th mock transfer and saline ultrasound to ensure all systems were go to start my last stim cycle. Other than a high TSH (thyroid) level, I’m all set. I wasn’t that surprised that my thyroid check was elevated since I’d been off my hypothyroidism meds for about 10 weeks because it conflicted with the prescribed appetite suppressant I was on for weight loss.

[Quick update on the weight loss: Somehow I’ve managed to quell my emotional eating inner demons, and am down 29.5 pounds! I picked up good habits and flipped that elusive switch that allowed me to rethink how I approach food. Particularly sugar. Perhaps the only person more surprised with my progress than me is my husband who knew all too well how unlikely I was to follow-through with this. It certainly has been challenging, but it’s pretty nice to feel like I am crushing. it. in just this one aspect of my life. Having said that, I’m about to stim again with hormones aplenty, so we’ll see what I’m made of over the next few weeks.]

It feels like there’s nothing but waiting. It’s often infuriating. Particularly in those rare time frames when I actually feel physically and emotionally ready to go down the IVF rabbit hole again. Like, ya know, now.

The downtime between completing one cycle and starting another always varies wildly. In my case, it’s almost always been months when it comes to IVF. I did my first stim (and fresh transfer) in June 2016. In fertility terms, that’s probably 25 potentially good eggs ago. Who knows if it was one of those “wasted” eggs that was the golden one?

Then we did our first FET in November 2016. Bust. The second FET didn’t happen for another ten months. Then I got a little bit pregnant. While money was probably the most significant factor in that span of time, getting answers to why three perfectly normal-looking embryos in an otherwise healthy woman simply didn’t stick (spoiler alert: it was endometritis) was also on the list. Not to mention my emotional health.

Moving into this last cycle, we’re already several months removed from the chemical pregnancy, and we’ve decided to leave our last frozen embryo from our OG stim cycle in the freezer (we’ll test Kristoff with his future embryo sibs). Which, another aside: If Kristoff is the ONE embryo that turns out to be genetically normal after PGS I think my brain may actually explode.

While the Clomid made me insane and pack on the pounds, at least IUIs keep the pace moving. I knocked a bunch of those out in a couple of months.

So we’re into another year of this waiting. Year five. We’ve reached the five-year milestone in infertility even before we did in our marriage. How’s that irony. Just delightful.

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What if there’s nothing left

2018. Will this be the year that we finally… no, don’t bother finishing that sentence. We all know how it goes, right?

We started with our fertility clinic in January of 2015 after trying for two years. 2018 will be the end of this road, no matter where it leads.

We’re putting together the financials for one more stim cycle, to hopefully begin shortly after the new year. I’ll pump myself full of hormones until my belly feels ready to pop, and then we’ll wait. Hold our collective breath to see if we have any normal embryos.

Last time I stimmed, my doctor retrieved 23 eggs. Those resulted in only six blastocysts. One of which remains frozen and waiting. I remember being excited to hear that we had six. I thought, well I’m certainly not going to have six kids, so we’re fiiiine. Naive. I was tested but still untested.

This time I will be nearly two years older. To my credit (since I take so little of it), my AMH is still good for 36. I have little doubt that stimming this time will be easy. Easy in the sense that my body will respond appropriately. But not easy at all.

Listen, I’m terrified that we won’t get any normal embryos after PGS testing. That’s what I just have to say. The five previously were not good, but we didn’t know that then. 3AB and her Frozen siblings, Anna, Elsa, Olaf and, then, Anakin. None of them found their home.

I liked the whimsy of having named my embryos. It brought me some levity to the science of it all. But I’m not sure I can name them this time. Really, I just want at least one to have the option of naming.

Just give me one and I’ll shut the hell up.