What can be done for male infertility
Father's Day is on Sunday, but for some men it will only remind them what they don't have.
The third Sunday in June – for years it was a day Louis* had come to dread. "I'd see children and their fathers playing in the park and wondered if I'd ever receive a little home-made card from my own child? Would I ever wake up on the morning of Father's Day and see their little twinkling eyes looking back at me? I just wanted the day to be over."
This Sunday, fathers across the country will be pampered by their sons and daughters – they'll be encouraged to put their feet up and watch the World Cup on the television. Surrounded by their children, they'll be showered with gifts and love.
But for Irish men everywhere, the day will serve as a reminder of their difficulties in becoming fathers themselves.
"For many men, not being able to father a child is one of the biggest struggles they will face in their lifetime," says Helen Browne of the National Infertility Support and Information Group (NISIG). "Male infertility is often overlooked in favour of the emotional and physical toll fertility treatment takes on women. Often the men suffer in silence."
When Louis and his wife, who live in the midlands, married seven years ago, they planned to have a family. But, after two years of trying unsuccessfully, they sought help from medical professionals.
"I remember when they told us that the reason we couldn't conceive was because of my fertility issues, it was hard to take, I was in a daze," recalls Louis.
"I felt 'this is all my fault, I'm the one to blame'. I don't think it necessarily made me feel like I was less of a man, but I still felt I was letting my wife down. She was so supportive but inside, I really struggled. Nothing can prepare you at all."
After five years and five failed attempts at IVF treatment, the couple wondered if their dream of holding their own child would ever be realised.
"It was a very lonely time. In many ways you go through it on your own because you're thinking, 'this is my doing, this is all down to me'."
Initially, friends, family and work colleagues enquired as to when they could expect to hear the patter of tiny feet. Eventually, they stopped asking.
"It's so difficult for men because in Irish society, they don't discuss these things in public," says Helen Browne. "Where women can talk about their fertility problems with friends, you can't imagine a man sitting up at the bar chatting about their fertility issues with others. One of our primary functions as human beings is to reproduce. Many men feel that they are failing in their biological duties if they are unable to father a child.
"Instinctively, they see themselves as the protectors; dealing with failure like this is very difficult – some see it as a lack of masculinity and are choked by self-doubt. This is particularly the case with men from rural backgrounds, where opening up about emotional difficulties is far from the common practice."
The NISIG estimates that men and women are equally vulnerable to infertility – 40pc of the sufferers are men and 40pc women. The remaining 20 pc, they estimate, is caused by a combination of male and female problems, while the reasons for a small percentage of infertility cases go unexplained.
"If fertility issues lie evenly with women and men, why are men's battles kept in the dark? We as a society need to talk much more about male infertility," says Helen.
As Louis struggled to come to terms with his situation and each round of IVF treatment failed, he contacted the NISIG for support and found that speaking to other men going through the same difficulties helped him greatly.
"Just to share the problem with another man helped ease the pain. They could relate to what I was experiencing and vice versa. Contacting the support group really was one of the best moves I ever made." Having already spent nearly €50,000 on fertility treatment, Louis and his wife decided to have one last go in early 2013.
They wondered if they were just setting themselves up for more disappointment and heartbreak. Louis' wife was soon to turn 40 and they knew this was their last chance, but the couple's determination drove them forward.
Their persistence paid off.
"When we were told we'd conceived, we froze. There was no feeling of euphoria. We had become so anxious. We had been used to so much disappointment, we just wanted everything to go smoothly."
There was double-joy when the couple were told they were to have twins and in April of this year, the longest of waits finally had the perfect ending.
"To hold them, these perfect little babies in our arms was amazing – beyond words. I still have to pinch myself that this emotional roller coaster finally had a happy ending. I find myself staring at pictures of them on my mobile phone when I'm away from them. I can't get them out of my mind for a second.
"For men out there who feel hopeless, please don't give up. If it came right for us, it can come right for you too. There's always hope."
At the NISIG, men who've gone through similar journeys to Louis can speak directly with those who contact the support group.
"I think men need to speak to other men to truly be helped with this situation," says Helen.
She advises wives and partners to "reassure your other half that you love him so much and that you'll take this journey together.
"Try to get him to relax; reflexology can help. Don't be afraid to use counselling – it can be a great help – and keep talking to him, reminding him that you will both get through this one way or another."
On Sunday, Louis will wake to hear his little babies gurgling and cooing – Father's Day is finally one he can cherish and the agonising days when it seemed like he would never see those twinkling eyes staring back at him, have already become a distant memory.
For those who haven't yet been so fortunate, help and support is available and perhaps this is the perfect weekend to pick up the telephone to speak with someone who knows what you're going through.
*Name has been changed
Lifestyle can affect infertility
Lifestyle changes can better men's odds of a successful conception.
1. Decrease drinking Alcohol can reduce the production of normally-formed sperm needed for a successful pregnancy. So if you're trying to conceive, try to cut down.
2. Stop smoking: Low sperm counts and sluggish motility (movement) have been linked to smoking.
3.Watch what you eat Both overweight and underweight men can have fertility problems. With too much weight, there can be hormonal disturbances, and when a man's too lean, he can have decreased sperm count and functionality.
4. Exercise (but in moderation): Excessive exercise could lower your sperm count indirectly by lowering the amount of testosterone in your body.
5. Vitamins help Low levels of vitamin C and zinc can cause sperm to clump together, so keep your numbers up. Vitamin E can counteract excess free-oxygen radicals, which can also affect sperm quality.
6.Limit exposure to toxins Men who have regular contact with environmental toxins or poisons (pesticides, insecticides, lead, radiation, or heavy metals) are at risk of infertility – avoid when and where possible.
7. Try to keep stress levels in check Researchers believe severe stress can affect some men's sperm count. It does this by lowering levels of a hormone called gonadotropin, which is needed for sperm production.
THE NATIONAL INFERTILITY SUPPORT AND INFORMATION GROUP (NISIG) IS A NOT-FOR-PROFIT ORGANISATION RUN BY A GROUP OF DEDICATED VOLUNTEERS WHO HAVE EXPERIENCED FERTILITY ISSUES. FOR MORE INFORMATION, SEE WWW.NISIG.COM OR CONTACT NISIG ON NISIGIRELAND@GMAIL.COM OR 087 797 5058 (ANYTIME).