"It's an insurance policy," Dr. Rachel Wellner says of freezing her eggs.

Story highlights

An estimated 5,000 women nationwide are using egg-freezing technology

Process costs thousands of dollars and it doesn't always work

American Society for Reproductive Medicine hasn't endorsed egg freezing

CNN  — 

When Dr. Rachel Wellner got a text from her brother Tuesday night that his wife was in labor, she was speaking at a fancy charity event for breast cancer research. As soon as her speech was over, she raced in her evening gown to Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan to watch her nephew, Lincoln Jacob Wellner, come into the world.

Holding the newborn baby in the delivery room, Wellner, 36, was overwhelmed with joy, but it was tinged with sadness as she wondered when – or whether – she would ever have a baby of her own. An accomplished breast surgeon, Wellner has no husband in sight.

Then she relaxed as she remembered what awaited her 50 blocks away: 13 eggs frozen in a bank at New York University Fertility Center.

If by the time Wellner gets married the eggs in her ovaries are too old to work, she can thaw out her frozen eggs, have them fertilized with her husband’s sperm and implanted into her uterus, and hope that her younger eggs will succeed where her older eggs failed.

Freezing eggs for one’s own future use has become a growing trend, with an estimated 5,000 women nationwide making use of the technology, according to Dr. Daniel Shapiro, medical director of the egg bank at Reproductive Biology Associates in Atlanta.

“I’m really hoping I find Mr. Right soon, but if I don’t, having those eggs in the bank is a big weight off my shoulders,” says Wellner, who banked her eggs in June.

“It empowers women,” adds Dr. Jamie Grifo, program director of the New York University Fertility Center. “Patients get to be their own egg donors.”

(Entertainment journalist Maria Menounos made news last week when she announced she’s freezing her eggs, but it turns out she’s actually doing something different – read The Chart to find out what.)

“It’s an insurance policy,” says Wellner, director of breast services at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary. “Maybe now I’ll be one of those lucky girls who has babies later in life.”

“I never thought I wouldn’t have kids at this point.”

Freezing your eggs may be an insurance policy, but it’s an expensive one. It costs thousands of dollars (or in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars) and it doesn’t always work.

Plenty of things can go wrong. Wellner’s 13 eggs might not survive the freezing process. They might not create viable embryos when mixed with her future husband’s sperm. And, even more likely, they might not attach to her uterus when doctors implant them.

That’s why the American Society for Reproductive Medicine hasn’t endorsed egg freezing, calling it experimental and unproven.

“Patients need to be advised there are some things we don’t know,” says Dr. Eric Widra, a spokesman for ASRM.

Pamela Madsen, founder of the American Fertility Association, says a woman has to decide whether it’s worth it to take the financial risk.

“If not having a baby is not an option, then I’d go to Vegas and play my cards, knowing that it’s Vegas,” she says.

If you’re considering preserving your eggs, here are five basic questions and answers:

1. How much will it cost?

Centers charge between $6,500 and $15,000 per cycle, according to Dr. Andrew Toledo, the CEO of Reproductive Biology Associates in Atlanta. RBA in Atlanta charges $7,600 per cycle, and NYU charges $12,000. Some women need more than one cycle to get enough viable eggs.

2. Will it work?

Shapiro at RBA estimates that a woman who freezes her eggs between the ages of 32 and 35 will have a 40 to 50% chance of achieving a successful pregnancy. If freezing between ages 35 and 38, the rate goes down to 35%. If freezing at 39 or 40, it’s 20 to 25%, and if freezing eggs over age 40, the success rate will be less than 10%.

3. Can I find out in advance if it’s worth the money to freeze my eggs?

A test for levels of anti-Mullerian hormone can help predict whether doctors will get enough eggs to make the procedure worthwhile.

“If the results are unfavorable, we say they’re probably wasting their time and money,” Shapiro says.

4. What’s involved in freezing my eggs?

The procedure involves injecting yourself with medicines for 10 days, visiting the doctor¹s office five or six times. About two days later, doctors will harvest your eggs while you¹re under twilight sedation. Most women feel little pain aside from a bit of cramping and breast tenderness, and go back to work the next day.

5. How do I find the best place to freeze my eggs?

“Make them show you their data,” Toledo advises. “How many patients have they treated? How many eggs did they get? What is the data on survivability when they’re thawed?”

Wellner says even if her eggs don’t work when she thaws them out, it was worth the financial risk.

“I spent all this money on my education. Twelve thousand dollars on my reproductive future is relatively inexpensive,” she says.