Is DHEA making me fat?…Why my ovaries are like dogs…And other stories.

Has anybody else put on weight while on DHEA? I’m up ~4 pounds since midsummer (and ~7 since 15 months ago when I was pregnant, but I can’t really blame DHEA for those extra 3 lbs…) DHEA is an anabolic steroid, and anabolic steroids cause weight gain, so I think it’s possible. The other reason I’m inclined to blame the DHEA is because of where the weight has been going. Not to my hips, thighs and butt (like usual), but straight to my belly. I have a beer gut. And now that I have to start dressing professionally again, all my work clothes are either unflattering, uncomfortable, or both. Ugh.

So, as you all know, we had our phone consultation with Dr. Schoolcraft on Monday. Overall, it went pretty well. (You can find his answers to my long list of questions here.)

Here are some other tidbits from our conversation with Dr. Schoolcraft that didn’t directly pertain to our questions:

  • Dr. Schoolcraft was late. He called us almost 40 minutes after our scheduled time. This wasn’t so much a problem in itself (the nurse had warned us that it was often the case), but – ever the healthcare practitioner – C pointed out that if he was that far behind schedule (it was 5:40pm his time), he almost certainly didn’t stop to look over our file before he called.
  •  Judging by the conversation, Dr. Schoolcraft almost certainly hadn’t reviewed our file. Again, this might have been fine in itself. (His answers were thorough, and he didn’t make us feel like he was in any rush.) But we found it annoying that we went to so much trouble to get our records, and to fill out an annoyingly detailed (and poorly designed) health history form online, if he wasn’t even going to read it. And, we now have one more question…which wouldn’t bother us if we felt like he had actually read our file before calling. (Specifically, we spent a lot of time with him talking about low-stim versus high-stim, the underlying assumption being that we had only tried low-stim and don’t know what would happen if we increased the dose…somehow we all forgot to consider the fact that we in fact tried IUI with pretty high doses of Menopur – 5 vials per day – and only got 2 follicles developing. I know that IUIs are different – I couldn’t take stims for as many days because I wasn’t taking anything to suppress ovulation – but still, the scientist in me is frustrated to think that we neglected an important piece of data!)
  • Dr. Schoolcraft thinks I have a “poor prognosis”. He just sort of let that slip out in the context of some comments about comparing SART stats between clinics. Not that it came as any big surprise, but it was more direct than Dr. Y has ever been (though not as bad as when Dr. L said I would go through menopause before 40…) I think it’s a good sign; it’s consistent with what I’ve heard from other patients (who described him as “direct” and someone who “doesn’t mince words”) and the last thing I want is a doctor who’s going to blow smoke up my ass…but it still stung.
  • I thought Dr. Schoolcraft’s advice for comparing SART stats was very interesting. He mentioned (and I’d heard before) that some clinics manage to inflate their stats by refusing to take patients with a poor prognosis (especially older patients). His advice, therefore, is to compare the ‘% of cycles resulting in live birth’ specifically for women under 35 (where there will have been the least selection bias). If you want to compare the quality of different embryology labs, then look at the success rates for donor cycles. It’s not perfect, but I thought it was an interesting way to get around some of the stat manipulation.
  • Naturally, the first thing C and I did after getting off the phone with Dr. Schoolcraft was to compare the SART stats for our local clinic to those for CCRM in the categories of women under 35 and donor cycles…and while CCRM was better on both counts, there really wasn’t a huge difference. So our lab really does seem to be quite good. But we also considered Dr. Schoolcraft’s point that CCRM sees mostly out-of-state patients who have already failed one or more IVF cycles. In other words, they see a disproportionate number of ‘hard’ cases. And yet, their stats (in just about every age group and diagnosis) are higher than anybody else’s I’ve found. This seems to back up Dr. Schoolcraft’s claim about having the best lab.

So, despite our mild annoyance, and “poor prognosis”, C and I decided that we should at least make the appointment and do the one-day workup. It’s not cheap, but it’s thorough, and after getting the results, we’ll be able to have a better sense of whether it’s worth our time to continue with my eggs…

C made the point that every month to my ovaries is like years to a normal set of ovaries. (My ovaries are like dogs, apparently.) And also reasoned, “We’ll probably spend money on a lot stupider things.”

I’m not feeling very optimistic about our chances of getting pregnant – even at CCRM, but it feels like something we have to do to feel like we’ve done everything we can.

A rousing game of ‘Guess Dr. Schoolcraft’s Answer’ [updated with results]

Thanks to all of you for your help compiling questions to ask Dr. Schoolcraft during our upcoming CCRM consultation. Per your suggestions, I added some questions and prioritized them to make sure we get to my most pressing questions first. Then, during my run this morning, I got a little cocky and found myself thinking that I probably can guess Dr. Schoolcraft’s answer to most of my questions. Next I thought, why not make it interesting?

So I’m putting my educated guesses in writing, here on the interweb for all to see. [Gulp!] If you have guesses of your own, please share them in the comments! After our phone consultation on Monday, I’ll update I updated this post with Dr. Schoolcraft’s answers – so don’t forget to check back and see how well (or poorly) we all did!

[Insert cheesy game show music]

Deep announcer voice, building: And now it’s time. Let’s play…

Audience shouting in unison: GUESS! DOCTOR! SCHOOLCRAFT’S! ANSWER!

[Applause]

* My answers are shown in black. Dr. Schoolcraft’s answers (as best I can remember them) are in blue.

1. What do you estimate our chances of success with my eggs to be?

Actually, I have no idea what his answer to this one will be, which is why I want to ask it first. My fear is that he “won’t be able to say without the information from my one-day-workup.” (The one-day workup is the full set of tests that CCRM conducts – in one day – for all new out-of-state patients. If he defers to the one-day-workup as an answer to each question, then I’m going to wonder why I went to all the trouble of sending my medical records and completing the detailed medical history. I’ll also be bummed to have spent $250 for what amounts to an elaborate advertisement…)

<<DING!>>

I won’t have enough information to say until we have your results from the one day workup. I can say that between the options of 1) doing IVF again with your eggs, 2) doing nothing, and 3) doing IVF with donor eggs, your best chance of success would be from IVF with donor eggs.

2. If you think it’s worth trying with our eggs, what new information would change your mind? At what point should we seriously consider donor eggs?

Aside from perhaps deferring to the one-day-workup, I imagine that he would recommend trying at least one cycle at CCRM with my own eggs before moving on to donor eggs. Seeing how I respond to a new protocol, after 3 months of supplements, would provide additional data to inform our next steps.

<<DING!>>

I would recommend trying IVF at least once with a conventional [i.e. high-stim] protocol. That would give you the greatest chance of recruiting the maximum possible number of eggs. And then we’d know how many eggs/embryos each subsequent cycle is likely to yield.  Your response to the stimulation, as well as the results of genetic testing on any embryos retrieved, will help us to know whether your problem is with egg quality [in which case egg donation might be a good option] or if there is another issue.

3. What do you think accounts for CCRM’s remarkable success rates?/What can CCRM do to improve my prognosis relative to my local clinic?

I’m guessing he’ll say some combination of the following three things: (a) world-class embryologists (In general, I’m told the embryology lab is the biggest factor in determining IVF success rates.); (b) genetic testing (A procedure called Comprehensive Chromosomal Screening or CCS – which permits selection of only embryos with the correct number of chromosomes – was developed at CCRM. Transfer of selected embryos dramatically increases success rates, as can be seen here.); and/or (c) experience (CCRM did 2464 ART cycles in 2011, about 5 times as many as my local clinic. Such a large number of cycles per year means that the embryologists are constantly honing their skills, while the doctors have more data to draw from in choosing appropriate protocols, etc.)

<<DING!>>

The lab. The embryology lab makes the biggest difference for IVF outcomes, and we have the best lab. This is especially true in your case, where you can only afford a low margin of error. For example, if you had 17 eggs retrieved, and six make it to blast, and you get pregnant, it looks like a success, even though more than half of the eggs didn’t make it. But you’re not going to have that many; you may only have one or two eggs. You want the best embryology lab to maximize the odds that those eggs make it to blast. At CCRM, we’ve also developed several specific techniques that improve outcomes, like embryo glue [and others that I didn’t hear because C was whispering that my typing was too loud…]

4. What other kinds of tests will CCRM do? Do you recommend genetic testing in our case?

I’m not sure what all the tests they do are, but I’m pretty confident that it is more than I’ve had so far (namely Day 3 FSH, AMH, and E2 testing; antral follicle count; HSG; and saline sonogram). I’m guessing that he will recommend CCS (since I turn 35 in November), but probably not PGD/PGS (since C and I are different races and have no family history of genetic disorders).

<<DING!>>

I would definitely recommend that you do chromosomal screening [CCS]. If the cycle doesn’t work, you want to know whether it’s because of a genetic issue [which would be resolved by using a donor] or if there is some other factor – a lining issue, etc. [which would not be]. The goal is to “get a baby or get an answer.”

5. How would we go about scheduling a cycle with CCRM, given my & C’s work schedules? (I can’t exactly take off for 10 consecutive days in the middle of the semester!)

I’m not sure what he’ll say about this. Assuming he recommends a fresh cycle, I’m guessing that he’ll say I should schedule retrieval & transfer between semesters (in December/January). Alternatively, if he recommends a freeze-all cycle (as would be the case if we do CCS), maybe it wouldn’t require so much time off and I might be able to time something around Fall Break?

<<DING!>>

C would only need to be here for one day, and assuming you did most of your monitoring appointments at home, you would only need to be here for 4-5 days [since I recommend freezing all for CCS]. One possibility is that we might time it so you could come over Thanksgiving break.

6. If, due to scheduling constraints, we opt to do another cycle locally before cycling with CCRM, do you have any recommendations for our local cycle? (With regard to stims? freeze day? other?)

No idea what he’ll say to this… I’m guessing he’ll push for going straight to CCRM, but I’d love to be surprised here.

<<<BUZZ!!!>>>

Not really. Our lab is here. There’s no way to take it with you.

7. How much variability do you expect from cycle to cycle? In other words, is it worth trying a particular protocol again if the first cycle yielded nothing?

I think he’ll say that there can be variability from cycle to cycle even with the same protocol, although I’m guessing that he will also suggest a protocol change…

<<<BUZZ!!!>>>

The outcome is not likely to change much if you use the same protocol. But I would recommend changing the protocol.

8. Do you recommend trying low stim (like last time) vs. high stim? What do you think about ‘natural cycle IVF’?

Based on what I’ve heard from other CCRM patients, I think he’ll say, “There are no scientific studies to suggest that high levels of stimulation drugs damage eggs, nor any that show better outcomes for low-stim or natural cycle IVF (whether for DOR sufferers or others).” He might also add that IVF is a numbers game, and that the goal is to get as many mature eggs as we can, and that high doses of stims are our best bet to get them.

<<DING!>>

Natural cycle IVF is “a total waste of time.” You’re not taking anything to prevent ovulation, and there’s a 40% chance of ovulating prematurely. With mini-IVF [low-stim], you’ve basically decided, “I’m gonna be happy with 2 or 3 eggs.” I suggest that you give this “one really good try” [meaning with high-stims]. If you try the “Bazooka” protocol and only get 2 or 3 eggs anyway, then you’ll know that mini-IVF is just as good in your case…plus it’s a lot cheaper.

9. What particular stims would you recommend in my case? What sort of suppression drugs would you use? (Ganirelix? microdose Lupron (agonist)? Other?)

I have no idea what he’ll say. Since my cycle with Clomid/Menopur + Ganirelix yielded just three eggs and no embryos, I might expect that he would suggest trying something different, but who knows.

<<<BUZZ!!!>>>

Your particular protocol will be determined using the results of your one-day-workup.

10. Should I be avoiding alcohol? Caffeine? Exercise? For three months prior to cycling? During my cycle? During stims?

I’m guessing – okay, I’m hoping – that he’ll say something along the lines of, “As long as you’re practicing moderation (defined as 1 alcoholic beverage, 1 cup of coffee, and 1 hour of exercise per day), and assuming that you’re at a healthy weight, there’s no reason to believe that these things would hurt fertility. However, to be safe, we recommend abstaining from all three during your IVF cycle, starting at Day 1 of stims.”

<<DING! DING! Hallelujah! DINGGG!!!>>

Moderate consumption of caffeine and alcohol (up to 1 cup per day of a caffeinated beverage, and up to 3 glasses per week of wine) shouldn’t be a problem. [I volunteered that I would stop when we start stims, so he didn’t say anything about that.]

11. Is limited exposure to organic solvents (in the context of teaching lab courses) a problem?

Again, here’s what I desperately hope he will say: “In the spectrum of organic solvent exposure, working as a lab chemist or chemistry teacher (where you are educated about safety and working in rooms designed with appropriate ventilation and fume hoods) is actually quite safe. Workers at hair and nail salons, dry cleaners, janitors, exterminators, and (non-organic) farmers all have much more dangerous levels of chemical exposure, yet no link has been discovered between these professions and infertility.” I don’t actually think he’ll say this, but I’m confident that it’s true, and it would be so nice to hear (and have C hear) it coming from a world-renowned infertility expert… Sigh!

<<DING!>>

I don’t think that your exposure to chemicals caused your diminished ovarian reserve. [Boo ya!] It’s mainly a concern when we get to the point of embryo transfer. At that point, you will want to avoid chemical exposure, as you would when you’re pregnant.

12. Am I taking the right set & doses of supplements?

I think he’ll say ‘yes’, since my list is essentially the same as the CCRM-recommended list. (The exceptions are that I’m taking a higher dose of CoQ10, along with aspirin, and a high antioxidant drink powder called Nanogreens.)

<<DING!>>

Probably. When you schedule your one-day workup, we’ll give you our list of recommended supplements.

13. Should I be taking PQQ (recommended by my acupuncturist) to promote mitochondria generation?

I’m guessing he’ll say something along the lines of, “There is no evidence to suggest that PQQ improves pregnancy outcomes for patients undergoing IVF.”

<<DING!>>

There are no human studies on PQQ.

14. In your experience, does taking the aforementioned supplements actually make a difference? In AMH and/or FSH levels? In number of eggs retrieved? In embryos that make it to blast? In ultimate pregnancy outcomes?

I’m not sure what he’ll say. I haven’t found any good scientific studies that say these supplements help, but the fact that CCRM recommends them suggests that they at least believe it may help. Dr. Schoolcraft has seen enough patients that he may have an opinion about what the supplements do, even if he hasn’t gotten around to conducting and publishing a study to that effect.

<<DING!>>

Nobody knows. There isn’t good data to support it, but it probably won’t hurt. The groups of common supplements including the antioxidants (of which you have many choices, including pycnogenol, vitamin C, vitamin, E, melatonin, etc.) These decrease reactive oxygen species, which are thought to cause a deterioration in egg quality. Another supplement is CoQ10, which is thought to affect mitochondrial function. However, this has not been shown in human studies, only in a mouse study. Based on the results of the mouse study, the corresponding effective dose in humans would be 600 mg/day.

In the case of DHEA, there is retrospective data, but no good prospective data. There is good prospective data showing that testosterone priming (for at least 21 days) improves outcomes, so we will likely put you on testosterone for 21 days prior to starting stims. Based on the results with testosterone, it looks like androgens are good; it may be that DHEA is just too weak an androgen to show the same result…

15. What do you think about estrogen- and/or testosterone-priming?

Again, no idea.

<<<BUZZ!!!>>>

[See answer to #14, above.]

16. Assuming we were able to get any embryos, would you go for a fresh vs. frozen transfer?

I’m guessing that he’ll suggest we do CCS (see #s 3 and 4, above). In that case, they have to freeze the embryos while performing the testing.

<<DING!>>

I recommend doing CCS, which requires that you freeze all embryos for testing.

17. Do you recommend trying to do multiple retrievals to try and ‘bank’ embryos? How many embryos is ‘enough’?

Given my poor response on my first cycle, I think he will recommend banking embryos. Also, since the cost for CCS is ‘per test’ rather than ‘per embryo’, the most economical option is to bank a bunch of embryos and then test them all at once. The question of ‘how many is enough’ is tough to know up front. If all my embryos test normal, then I may not need that many. On the other hand, odds are good that half or more might not be. The limiting factors for determining ‘how many embryos are enough’ will probably be time and money…

<<<BUZZ!!!>>>

It depends how your first cycle goes. If you only get 1 or 2 embryos, I would probably suggest banking them to have more for CCS; if you get more, it may be worth testing them immediately.

18. What causes DOR? In other words, what could I have done differently (besides have babies in my twenties…)? Could my career choice (organic chemistry) have contributed?

I think he’ll say that he has no idea. It may be a combination of genetic and/or environmental factors, but the only environmental factor that is known to cause a decrease in egg quantity and quality is smoking (which I don’t). On the topic of chemistry and DOR, see my wishful answer to #11.

[I didn’t technically ask this question, but see his answer to #11…]

19. What would be the cost per cycle with CCRM?

I don’t need to ask this one anymore, as I found the answer here.

————————————————————————————————————-

Deep announcer voice: Well done, knalani! You correctly guessed 12 answers out of 17! Bambi, show her what her prize is…

Sultry assistant voice: It’s…a no-expense-paid trip to the lovely city of Denver!

Audience: Ooh! Aah!

Deep announcer voice: Thank you for playing, and we’ll see you next time on…

Audience shouting in unison: GUESS! DOCTOR! SCHOOLCRAFT’S! ANSWER!

[Cheesy game show music]

My fortnight in pictures

I’m sorry for being a bad blogger lately. My excuses are many: we’ve been busy with visitors and travel, I’ve been ‘using up’ all my writing juices on my promotion portfolio (due September 5), and not much has been happening on the infertility front.

Rather than a long, disjointed ‘catch up’ post, I bring you my fortnight in pictures:

1) Got these beautiful flowers from my mom’s college roommate. She suffered with unexplained infertility for 10 years before having two amazing children, now grown.

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2) Did lot of head scratching mid-month. My fertility monitor (which reads the lower stick) never gave a peak reading this month. (It never even gave a ‘high’ reading!) But the cheap-o OPK (upper stick) did give a positive, so we moved ahead with our plan to do natural cycle IUI.

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3) I snapped this shot just after insemination. As you can see, I forgot my lucky socks. 😦 I put a pair in my glove compartment now so I’ll be prepared next time!

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4) Here’s a selfie of me before giving the sperm to the nurse to wash it. I think the recommendation of sticking the ‘sample’ in my bra to keep it warm in transit probably works better for bustier women than me…

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5) I’m proud to say that I’ve been running regularly, thanks to my sister’s nagging encouragement. Nothing anywhere near my marathon days (my longest recent run was 4.3 miles), but it adds up after awhile. I’m just proud to be doing something active again!

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6) A view from one of my runs… Makes me wonder how on earth I waited so long to run again!

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7) C and I decided to take a trip to northern Sonoma for some wine tasting. We stopped on the way up to enjoy the view.

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8) Funny enough, this is about as close as we got to any wineries on our ‘wine trip’.

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9) Instead of wine tasting, we spent a lot of time beer tasting at Russian River and Bear Republic (below), two of our favorite breweries. I didn’t manage to snap any pictures at Russian River – probably because we were enjoying the beer and company too much! (Our friend M is a brewer there and he and his wife J gave us the deluxe tour.)

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10) Aunt Flo showed her ugly face yesterday morning. For what it’s worth, it didn’t catch me off guard, since I’ve started charting again. Anyway, how could I be sad when I’ve got this joker to cheer me up back at home?

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I need your help!

My phone consultation with CCRM is fast approaching. Faster, since I got a call from Dr. Schoolcraft’s assistant last week, asking to move up my appointment from September 16 to August 26. It may even happen sooner, as I added my name to the cancellation list. (I got one call last Friday asking me if I would do the consultation ‘right now’. I declined, since I want to have C on the phone with me!)

I also recently learned that I need to be thorough about preparing my questions prior to the phone consultation. A friend from my Resolve support group is a patient of Dr. Schoolcraft’s, and she said that he basically calls and says, “So, what questions do you have for me?” She said if I’m not ready to drive the conversation, it could be a very short one… Not exactly what I’m looking to pay $250 for!

So I’m asking for your help in compiling questions for Dr. Schoolcraft. Here’s what I have so far:

Regarding the protocol:

* Do you recommend trying low stim (like last time) vs. high stim?

*Would you use Ganirelix (antagonist) vs. microdose Lupron (agonist)? Or another drug?

*What do you think about estrogen- and/or testosterone-priming?

*Assuming we were able to get any embryos, would you go for a fresh vs. frozen transfer?

Regarding my lifestyle:

*Am I taking the right set & doses of supplements?

* Should I be taking PQQ (recommended by my acupuncturist) to promote mitochondria generation?

*Should I be avoiding alcohol? Caffeine? Exercise? For three months prior to cycling? During my cycle? During stims?

* Is limited exposure to organic solvents (in the context of teaching lab courses) a problem?

Regarding our prognosis:

* In your experience, does taking the aforementioned supplements actually make a difference? In AMH and/or FSH levels? In number of eggs retrieved? In embryos that make it to blast? In ultimate pregnancy outcomes?

*How much variability do you expect from cycle to cycle? In other words, is it worth trying a particular protocol again if the first cycle yielded nothing?

* Do you recommend trying to do multiple retrievals to try and ‘bank’ embryos? How many embryos is ‘enough’?

* What do you estimate our chances of success with my eggs to be?

* If you think it’s worth trying with our eggs, what new information would change your mind? At what point should we seriously consider donor eggs?

Regarding CCRM:

*What do you think accounts for CCRM’s remarkable success rates?

*What can CCRM do to improve my prognosis relative to my local clinic?

*How would we go about scheduling a cycle with CCRM, given my & C’s work schedules? (I can’t exactly take off for 10 consecutive days in the middle of the semester!)

*What would be the cost per cycle with CCRM?

*If, due to scheduling constraints, we opt to do another cycle locally before cycling with CCRM, do you have any recommendations for our local cycle? (With regard to stims? freeze day? other?)

Out of curiosity:

* What causes DOR? In other words, what could I have done differently (besides have babies in my twenties…)? Could my career choice (organic chemistry) have contributed?

 

And…what else?

Hit me with your awesome questions!