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Healthy women here heading to US, Taiwan and Malaysia to freeze eggs and preserve chance at motherhood

It is her way of storing hope - the hope of becoming a mother.

She was completely taken by surprise when she was diagnosed with colon cancer last year.

She was only 29 years old.

"No one in her right mind is going to think that at 27, 28, 29, she's going to have cancer.

"You think, maybe you will have children," says Dr Suresh Nair (below), 55, an obstetrician and gynaecologist who specialises in advanced fertility treatment, including assisted reproductive techniques like in-vitro fertilisation (IVF).

Cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy, can stop the ovaries from producing eggs, causing temporary or permanent infertility.

Mary (not her real name) was depressed and bewildered by the turn of events, especially because she had got married not long ago.

It was her mother who encouraged her to store her eggs for future use before undergoing treatment.

Says Dr Nair: "When she found out her daughter's condition, the first thing was, yes, cure her. But she pushed her daughter to go and do this."

Mary, a former teacher who is now based in Sydney, Australia, had her eggs extracted and fertilised with her husband's sperm.

The resulting blastocysts - five-day-old embryos - are stored at Mount Elizabeth Fertility Centre in Singapore.

"She has five little children waiting to be born," says Dr Nair, who explains that chances of pregnancies with embryos are higher at 55 per cent compared to less than 5 per cent for eggs.

On average, the procedure, which includes stimulation and egg-retrieval, costs about $12,000 here. It costs another $800 per egg a year to store.

"She and her husband were just shocked by the cancer. It took some time to overcome that."

But Mary has now come to terms with it, he adds.

RISKS

"They just listened on and understood. After a number of sessions - we have to do it in quick succession - she began to realise that, yes, this is what she wanted to do," says Dr Nair.

"This has given her hope. She understood all the risks, she knew what the implications were, she wanted to go forward and have children. She did not want to be robbed of her chance of having a baby.

"And the fact that she knows that she can eventually have children later, even after the chemotherapy, gives her that positive approach to life."

She told Dr Nair that she would have no regrets dying.

He says: "She's said, as most of my patients do when they have cancer, 'I'd rather have had a chance of holding my baby in my arms and see the child grow up than never have had the chance to do so.'"

Hope for a price

Because she has no medical reasons to store her eggs here, she had to fork out almost $10,000 and travel to another country to store her hope of becoming a mother.

That amount does not include the RM$1,000 (S$375) a year to keep them in storage.

Jane (not her real name) was then turning 40 and knew her eggs "were fighting a losing battle against my biological clock".

The 44-year-old sales director told a women's magazine: "I want to get married some day and start a family, but Mr Right has been elusive so far."

She flew to a fertility centre in Malaysia and produced 13 mature eggs in one round of stimulation, which takes about two weeks.

At least three other single, professional, Singapore women have gone to countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Australia to freeze their eggs, The New Paper on Sunday understands.

The women, aged between 33 and 42, have all declined to be interviewed, citing privacy reasons.

A check with overseas fertility centres show that there is a demand for the service from Singapore women.

In reply to e-mail queries, e-stork Fertility Centerin Taiwanconfirms it has one Singaporean customer.

Its spokesman says the procedure costs NT$110,000 (S$5,000) for the first cycle and discounted thereafter.

An additional NT$8,000 a year is charged for storage services.

FROZEN IN NEW YORK

In the US, New York University Fertility Center froze the eggs of three Singaporean women in 2013.

Its programme director, infertility treatment specialist James Grifo, told The New Paper on Sunday via a phone interview that the cost of the egg-freezing procedure, including medication and cycle charge, can total up to US$20,000 (S$27,000). Storage services cost US$1,000 a year.

Sunfert International Fertility Centre in Selangor and Alpha Fertility Centre in Kuala Lumpur have each frozen eggs from two Singapore women since 2011 and in 2013 respectively, a report says.

Another fertility centre in Kuala Lumpur says inquiries from Singapore women have increased over the past four years. It receives one to two inquiries a month.

Its co-ordinatorsays that to date, at least 10 Singapore women have made the trip there for a discussion. Most of them were 37 years old and above.

"They are already at an advanced age, so the chances are low," she says.

"Many said they were freezing their eggs because 'I've not found a man yet, but who knows, maybe I can find one at 45 and I want to have a baby then'."

The procedure is estimated to cost about RM 15,000 per cycle.

"Those who are younger cannot afford it. By the time they can afford it, they are too old," she says.

Fertility clinics here have also seen more inquiries from local women about social egg-freezing.

Dr Ann Tan, an obstetrician and gynaecologist with Women & Fetal Centre, says that she gets a handful of inquiries every month, whereas there were none three years ago.

Hope should be for everyone

Social egg freezing remains unavailable in Singapore.

This despite the Ministry of Health's announcement in November 2012 that it was reviewing the "medical, scientific and ethical implications" of the policy.

In an e-mail reply to our queries last month, the ministry says: Only women who have to undergo treatments which will damage their fertility, such as chemotherapy, are allowed to freeze their eggs.

Social egg freezing is not allowed because of risks such as ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome, bleeding and infection, says the ministry's spokesman.

The potential social implications, such as how social egg freezing may delay marriage and parenthood, also concerns the ministry.

He says: "Given its complex nature and its potential impact, this issue requires careful deliberation by various government agencies and any changes will need to be carefully considered."

Countries with declining birth rates, like Taiwan and Australia, have legalised social egg freezing. In Israel, up to four rounds of egg freezing can be done for free.

Last year, Apple and Facebook offered to pay the costs of egg freezing for their female employees.

A Facebook spokesman confirmed that the company covers the costs up to US$$20,000 (S$26,700) for all US employees covered by its insurance plan.

Fertility experts The New Paper on Sunday spoke to are for the liberalisation of egg-freezing policy.

UNFOUNDED FEARS

Thomson Fertility Centre medical director Loh Seong Feei (above), 51, says fears of delayed motherhood and child-bearing are unfounded.

He says: "Those who freeze their eggs are not doing it for frivolous reasons like advancing their career. They are educated professionals who have not found the right relationship.

"They are worried that their egg reserves are declining and want to freeze their eggs before they run out."

Female fertility peaks at the age of 24 and starts declining from 28. At 34 years old, a woman's fertility could drop by 15 per cent, explains Dr Suresh Nair, who specialises in advance fertility treatments.

"Age is not on your side," he says.

The optimum age for egg-freezing is between 28 and 34 years old, says Dr James Grifo, a specialist in infertility treatment and in-vitro fertilisation in the US.

The procedure involves daily self-injection of medicine for about two weeks to stimulate the ovaries in producing more eggs, which are retrieved in a minor surgery.

Frozen eggs can yield the same IVF success rate as a fresh egg, says Dr Loh.

Director of Singapore General Hospital's Centre for Assisted Reproduction, Dr Yu Su Ling, cautions that there are risks of drug allergies, ovarian hyper-stimulation and bleeding, as well as infection from the surgical procedure.

Professor SC Ng, medical director of Sincere IVF Centre, says that a patient may need a few cycles of ovarian stimulation and several procedures to collect about 20 to 30 eggs to give a good chance of pregnancy.

Dr Grifo says patients can discard unused eggs or donate them to research.

He says: "It is an insurance policy, not a solution. Women freeze their eggs so that they can become their own egg donor."

Dr Loh feels that women should be given the right to make their own decision. "As long as the patient understands that egg freezing is not a sure way for them to conceive in the future, I feel that it is the patient's right to avail herself to the procedure."

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