Jessica Grace Wing was an ideal egg donor.Screenshot/CBS San Francisco
As CBS San Francisco reports, Wing was everything a potential family would look for — tall, well-educated, physically fit, healthy, artistic … and she’d even done some modelling. Wing learned about egg donation when she was a student at Stanford University. Ads posted on campus offered young women thousands of dollars to donate their eggs.
The pay could go as high as $50,000, though it isn’t easy money. The eggs are harvested via a surgical procedure after the donor has undergone a series of injections similar to those in fertility treatments. In the video below, Dr. Jennifer Schneider, Wing’s mother, told CBS San Francisco:
“It’s a daily series of injections of a combination of female hormones in a certain sequence in order to produce multiple eggs rather than the typical one egg.”
When Wing told her mother she was considering egg donation, Schneider asked about the risks of the hormone injections and procedure. But Wing assured her mother that there were no known risks to the process. Her mother told CBS San Francisco:
“She had a friend who had done it. It would be a way of helping other women and also of getting some extra money.”
After the first successful donation, Wing went through the process two more times. Every donation ended in a healthy birth, making the college student even more desirable as a donor (and netting her a higher payment).
Meanwhile, Wing finished her studies in California and prepared for graduate school at Columbia University in New York. She was also involved in the New York theater scene.
But at age 29, Wing was diagnosed with an advanced case of colon cancer. Within two years, she was dead. Her obituary in the New York Times notes that Wing finished writing her last work — the songs for a musical based on Hansel and Gretel — only 36 hours before she died.
From the start, Wing’s illness was difficult to explain. There was no family history or genetic predisposition to colon cancer. Schneider said the family was “puzzled” about how her daughter could have developed such a serious case at such a young age.
Schneider, who works as an internist, even got her daughter’s DNA tested to see if that might help solve the mystery. Then, remembering Wing’s history of egg donation, she tried to investigate a link between multiple, high-dose hormone injections and cancer risk … and hit a wall.
The mom was “shocked” to discover that no one tracks what happens to egg donors in order to evaluate possible long-term health implications of the procedure. Dr. Marcelle Cedars, a reproductive endocrinologist, told CBS San Francisco a lack of information on egg donors is the inevitable result when there’s no centralized health data:
“The physician who they see for their fertility treatment may not even be part of their general health care. They might be a Kaiser patient, or followed by Blue Shield, Blue health care. They may be in Massachusetts and moved to California. There is no central system that links all of these health care systems.”
Schneider did her own research and found five cases of former egg donors who, despite having no genetic risk for the condition, developed breast cancer. She published a report on her findings, but admits the few cases she found aren’t enough to prove a link between egg donation and cancer risk.
Meanwhile, doctors in the field of reproductive health say the existing data on women who have been through IVF (which includes similar doses of hormones) indicates that there’s no evidence of long-term risks.
However, Schneider thinks that “no known risks” doesn’t excuse the lack of further research. She’s pushing for more long-term research. As she told CBS San Francisco:
“I can’t say for sure why [my daughter] died, but I do know how many other women are going to die and we’re not going to know ‘for sure’ because we’ve never looked into it.”
Schneider is also calling for the creation of a national egg donor registry. She told the New York Times that she believes egg donors should be monitored like other organ donors. And as she told CBS San Francisco, she hopes to prevent other families from experiencing the same loss that she has:
“You’re not supposed to be outliving your children it’s awful.”