Sweet’s Rules: Four simple rules I use each day to guide me as I diagnose and treat my infertile patients

During National Infertility Awareness Week, I’d like to share my four patient care rules. I made them up rather spontaneously nearly 22 years ago and I still use them each and every day when I am uncertain of what to tell a patient or how we should proceed.

Before the rules are invoked, it is most important to first understand what brings patients to my clinic. By understanding the causes of their infertility, I will better be able to tailor a treatment plan specific to their needs. Some patients feel this is a waste of time and want to proceed immediately to treatment, but I strongly recommend understanding the issues first before proceeding forward.

So, once the evaluation is complete, my Sweet’s Rules are used to guide us forward-

1. Get my patients pregnant as fast as I can

Time can be an enemy and patients are not necessarily patient. We need to complete the evaluation quickly and move forward as most of my patients wanted to be pregnant many yesterdays ago. Some will call this a “duh!” rule, but it is still a good one to keep me moving forward as the patient desires.

2. Achieve success in the most cost-effective manner possible

We always want to choose the least costly conception method. This might even mean sending the patients on a date to try natural means for a tad bit longer. Hopefully, the successful patient potentially saves a bundle by my guiding them away from costly alternatives. Sometimes, adoption is also the best option and I’ll send them down this new road, if it is needed, even if the practice loses a patient. My cardinal rule is to treat the patients like family and tell them what I would tell someone close to me, regardless of the gain or loss to the practice. Practicing this way has always served may patients well.

3. Minimize complications (i.e., no litters)

I took an oath to do no harm and I take that oath very, very seriously. A multiple pregnancy can be a million dollar pregnancy with complications too long to list here. Always pull back, no matter how much pressure from the patient, if I fear a complication is likely.

4. Minimize the use of procedures with minimal chances of success

This may be the most important rule. I do not like being a “Gynechiatrist” (borrowed from the movie “Knocked Up”) by performing procedures that are unlikely to work. While some patients need to try a procedure destined for probable failure, to have closure and the inner knowledge that they gave it a shot, I prefer to move quickly through these treatments and get the patient to understand what will truly bring them to their goal.

I tell patients these rules when I am trying to guide them through their treatment plan. I believe it helps them to understand why I am telling them something, especially when they don’t necessarily want to hear it. Understanding my motivations, I believe, helps them to appreciate that I truly have their best interests at heart. By following these simple four rules, I will always keep my patients’ needs first and foremost.

While I may not be successful with all my patients, I will always try my best, give them the best information I can and provide options that simply make sense. Interestingly, these rules help me keep on the path, as much as they simultaneously guide my patients, as we make decisions and travel the infertility to fertility journey together.

By: Dr. Craig R. Sweet

Medical Director & Founder

How Old Should a Woman Be to Donate Her Eggs: An ethical debate

What to Say & What Not to Say to the Infertile Patient

By: Dr. Craig R. Sweet, Medical Director & Founder

(Reprinted from Florida Parenting News, February, 1994, revised September, 1999 and again April, 2011.)


Infertility affects nearly one in six couples. Approximately 40% of the time, the problem is related to the female partner, another 40% is related to male difficulties and 20% of the time both partners will have medical problems. Most of the time, infertility is a symptom of an underlying disease process, a disease process that the infertile patient has no control over. To these patients, infertility can be a crisis of the deepest kind. Every menstrual cycle represents a failure and is a time of grief for the potential child that never came to be.

The infertile patient or couple will often express their feelings through anger, frustration, feelings of inadequacy, depression and guilt. Relationships with family members who have children can suffer, marriages and relationships are strained and well-meaning friends and family can overload the patient with advice and pressure. Family and social gatherings become a reminder of infertility. Baby showers can be a traumatic experience. Mother's and Father's Day are often very, very difficult.

We want to offer some tips that provide support to patients who have not yet had the blessing of a beautiful child to love. With your assistance, most patients going though the process of trying to conceive can maintain a positive attitude.

What Not To Say…

Don't ask a childless person when they are going to have a child. They may be going through the process of trying to conceive, but have not yet achieved success. Asking them only reminds them of their problem and they need no extra reminders.

Don't relate stories of your fertility to them. Hearing “my husband just has to look at me and I get pregnant” is very annoying. While well meaning, the statement is insensitive and unhelpful.

Don't give advice such as “just relax,” “you are trying too hard” or “take a vacation.” All of these very common comments imply that patient has control of their fertility. Most of the time, these patients have absolutely no control over their fertility. Implying control leads to feelings of failure and guilt when this advice doesn't work. It simply is not their fault and they are doubtfully doing anything wrong in what they have done thus far.

Don't offer advice such as sexual timing, position, herbal medications or other totally unproven therapies. There are literally hundreds of old wives’ tales that, when followed, can drive an infertile patient nearly crazy. Their physician will have covered those natural aspects of their care that may maximize their chances for conception. Once again, please to not imply that they have a sense of control as they lost it long ago.

Don't express your derogatory personal opinions regarding insemination procedures, test-tube babies or adoption. Sometimes, these are their only hope for having a child. These are your opinions and uninvited advice is rarely neither desired nor constructive. You are absolutely entitled to your opinion; simply keep it your own. If they ask for your advice, then feel free to state your opinions, but do so in a kind and considerate manner.  Please, do not be judgmental.

Don't place blame by accusing the couple of exercising too much, eating the wrong foods or drinking alcohol. These patients may already be blaming themselves. Their physician will have already covered the medical and reproductive consequences of obesity, smoking, alcohol and recreation drugs. Support them in the cessation of these activities and minimize the guilt associated with their consumption. The guilt rarely leads to cessation but often moves the individual to increased consumption.

What You Can Say and Do…

Do provide couples with plenty of emotional support by saying “It must be difficult to go through this” and “I'm here to listen if you need to talk.”

Do remember that men can be just as emotional about the problem, sometimes even more so. They may feel their masculinity is at risk. Be sensitive to their egos and personality traits.

Do understand the couple's need for privacy.

Do try to understand that if they are your employees, frequent doctor's appointments may be necessary during business hours. Please try to accommodate them as much as possible. Not doing so may also be construed as a form of discrimination and place you at legal risk.

Do understand why they may not make it to a baby shower or a holiday event. These frequent events can become overwhelming for an infertile patient.

Do tell the infertile couple that there is hope.

Please remember that the vast majority of infertile patients have minimal control of the diseases that causes their infertility. Giving them emotional support during this trying time is a wonderful way to assist them. Giving them subtle hints that they have control plants the seeds of personal failure in the minds of the infertile patient.

Please be kind, be thoughtful and always be supportive.


Do The Risks Of Ovarian And Borderline Ovarian Cancer Increase With IVF Treatment?

Does infertility treatment cause ovarian cancer?

We are commonly asked if IVF increases the risk of ovarian cancer. Studies conducted over the past 20 years have tried to answer this question. A recent publication by van Leeuwen, et al., examined this issue carefully and produced some very interesting results.

What were the study basics?

The study published recently in Human Reproduction involved a very large retrospective analysis (data collected from the past) in the Netherlands of 25,152 infertile women (19,146 IVF and 6,006 non-IVF infertility patients) who received their infertility treatment between 1983 through 1995. The extensive follow-up period, which averaged about 15 years, made this study unique amongst others.

Why might infertility treatment result in ovarian cancer?

It has been theorized that the risk for ovarian cancer, which is estimated to be a 1/72-lifetime risk in the US, would increase because of ovarian stimulation and/or multiple ovulation sites forming across the surface of the ovary. Partially dispelling these concerns, this study did not show any increased risks for ovarian cancer for non-IVF infertile patients treated with either oral or injectable fertility medications. Also, further debunking the theory was the fact that the risk for ovarian cancer did not increase as the number of IVF cycles increased.

Is there something special about the IVF patient that increases her risk for ovarian cancer?

We also have wondered if the IVF patient simply has something wrong with her ovaries that predispose her to infertility, IVF treatments as well as ovarian/borderline ovarian cancer. The fact that there was a much larger percentage of “unexplained infertility” patients in the IVF-treated group suggests the IVF and non-IVF patient groups were indeed very different from each other.

Also understanding that borderline ovarian cancers normally make up only 20% of all ovarian cancers and are not anywhere as lethal as the more common ovarian cancers, it was somewhat unexpected to find that 46% of all ovarian cancers identified in the infertility patients in this study were borderline cancers. This high percentage of borderline lesions also suggests that something was unusual about the IVF-treated patient population.

What were some of the important findings in the study?

In reading this paper carefully, I was able to identify the following important points, some of which were not emphasized in the study:

  • Tubal infertility IVF patients (i.e., past and/or chronic pelvic infections) were twice as likely to have invasive or borderline ovarian cancers.
  • Those IVF patients who never conceived were twice as likely to have any ovarian cancers and three times more likely to have borderline ovarian cancers.
  • In the study, the actual risk for any ovarian cancer by age 55 was estimated 1/141 (0.71%) in the IVF group compared to 1/222 (0.45%) for the normal population, an overall increased risk of 1/3rd but still a very rare event.
  • Also in the study, the actual risk for borderline ovarian cancer by age 55 was approximately 1/600 for the IVF patients compared to 1/1,200 for the general population, essentially doubling the risk. Still the actual incidence was still very, very rare.

What did we really learn from the study?

While I feel the authors did an amazing job collecting and analyzing the data, I felt the discussion section missed a few very important points:

  • Those that underwent IVF, especially unexplained infertility patients, may still differ in some way which may increase their risk for both prolonged infertility and ovarian/borderline ovarian cancers.
    • In other words, it may not be the IVF procedure itself as much as the underlying characteristics of the IVF patients, which predispose them to ovarian cancer risks.
  • Acute or chronic pelvic infections may very well increase the risk of borderline ovarian cancer.
    • The fact that IVF-treated patients were far more likely to have past pelvic infections may have been responsible for many of the findings described in this study. To the best of my knowledge, this has not been described before. Interestingly, chronic inflammation in other areas of the body also predisposes to some forms of cancer. Perhaps the pelvis is the same.
  • If one conceives through IVF, the risks for ovarian and borderline ovarian cancers drop to normal levels.
    • Either the pregnancy helps reduce the ovarian cancer risks or those who conceive are inherently at a reduced risk for ovarian cancer compared to those who never conceive.
    • This point has been found to be true with past studies that showed an increased risk of borderline ovarian cancers with the use of oral clomiphene citrate when used for more than 12 cycles without an eventual pregnancy. Once pregnancy occurred, even resulting in a miscarriage, the borderline ovarian cancer risks normalized (Rossing MA, et al. 1994).
  • Current regimens used to stimulate the ovaries are very different from those used prior to 1995.
    • The current risk factors could be better, worse or the same as those described in the study because IVF protocols have significantly changed since 1995.

In summary:

The risks for ovarian and borderline ovarian cancer for infertility patients undergoing IVF may be incrementally increased compared to the non-IVF population. Interestingly, far less lethal borderline ovarian cancers are found in a greater percentage in this very special patient population. Confounding factors, such as tubal factor infertility with acute/chronic infections, may increase the risk for ovarian malignancy in this patient population.

No matter how statistically significant the findings are, one still must note that the actual risks described in this study for women age 55 are still extraordinarily rare: 1/141 for any ovarian cancer and 1/600 for borderline ovarian cancers. These risks also are unlikely to deter a highly motivated infertility patient. Keep in mind that the average risk for a genetically abnormal child in IVF-treated patients is probably closer to 1/100, which is far higher than any of the risks for cancer listed in the current study. Let us all keep our perspective.

Still, we need to collect further data as many of the women in the study were only in their middle 50’s and the risks for ovarian cancer generally increase with age.

Above all, an IVF conception may very well reduce the ovarian cancer risks significantly. If conception never occurs, this may signal physicians to monitor the unsuccessful patients more carefully for future potential ovarian malignancies, although the actual incidence of the disease may still be quite rare.

Congratulations to the researchers who put an amazing amount of work into this study and we thank them for their dedication to infertile patients and to those of us who care so much for them.

Craig R. Sweet, M.D.
Reproductive Endocrinologist
Specialists in Reproductive Medicine & Surgery, P.A.


van Leeuwen FE, Klip H, Mooij TM, van de Swaluw AM, Lambalk CB, Kortman M, Laven JS, Jansen CA, Helmerhorst FM, Cohlen BJ, Willemsen WN, Smeenk JM, Simons AH, van der Veen F, Evers JL, van Dop PA, Macklon NS, Burger CW. Risk of borderline and invasive ovarian tumours after ovarian stimulation for in vitro fertilization in a large Dutch cohort. Hum Reprod. 2011 Dec;26(12):3456-65.

Rossing MA, Daling JR,Weiss NS, Moore DE, Self SG. Ovarian tumors in a cohort of infertile women. N Engl J Med 1994;331:771–776.


Thoughts on "The Switch"?

Did you see the new Jennifer Anniston movie, “The Switch” this weekend? What did you think about how it portrays the subject of infertility? Did you appreciate its humor or just find it way off base? If you didn’t see it, do you plan to? Share your thoughts!

FAQs answered!

You ask, we answer! Read some of our most frequently asked questions, along with some common truths and myths about fertility in this issue of Sweet Concepts. Sign up to receive our free e-newsletter!

Sorting out fertility fact from fertility fiction

How many times have your friends and family told you to “just relax and you'll get pregnant,” “don't let him ride a bike,” “point your head to the North during sex to have a boy,” “don't exercise,” “wear boxers instead briefs,” just to name a few? The list goes on and on. Some may have a touch of fact while others are total fiction. Ever want to ask your doctor but afraid you would be thought of as silly? I guarantee that if you have the question, others will also want to hear the answer!

I’ll be sorting out fertility fact from fertility fiction! Privately e-mail the question to fertility@dreamABaby.com. Please indicate if you want us to use your name or e-mail address. Or list the question on Facebook or our Blog. You can be entirely anonymous or we can include your name and/or e-mail address so others can share their experiences directly with you. We will then place the questions in order and explain away. I promise that I will sprinkle a touch of humor, a pinch of history and gallons of information in answering these questions.

Trying to get pregnant? More answers to your questions

Couples trying the “old-fashioned way” of conceiving often ask, “How often should we have sex to become pregnant?”

Our response is that having sex every 36-48 hours in the middle part of the women’s menstrual cycle is ideal. Couples that have sex five times a week get pregnant faster than those who have sex less often. Throw away the daily temperature charts and just have fun!  Taking a temperature every morning is also a lousy way to start the day. Have fun, go on dates, keep it as spontaneous as possible, remember why the two of you are together and don’t make creating a baby a second job!

Do you have a question about fertility? Submit it below or email me directly at fertility@dreamABaby.com.

Your FAQs Answered

Earlier this week, I asked readers to submit their questions about fertility care. To recap, I was asked about whether pineapple helps make the embryos stick during IVF and about whether Pre seed helps with producing cervical fluid during ovulation.

Regarding pineapple – that is a new one for me. I checked the National Library of Medicine database and found curious information.

First, pineapple contains the enzyme bromelain, which supposedly breaks down enzymes that inhibit implantation. I found an old study from the 1970's that examined if this enzyme could induce an abortion in rats. It was not found to be useful.

There hasn't been any reproductive research on this enzyme over the past 10 years. I did find a 25-year-old study wherein the enzyme was used to breakdown cervical mucous in the laboratory. This worked but further study has never been done and I certainly do not recommend that pineapple be placed in the vagina!

This enzyme is apparently used to tenderize meats.

So, to summarize, this enzyme breaks down proteins (meat), has been studied to potentially cause an abortion (doubtful) and can be useful in the laboratory to break down cervical mucous (Please do not try this in the vagina!). It doesn't seem to have any specificity so the breakdown of yet-to-be-discovered proteins that inhibit implantation is a real stretch of the imagination.

I like the idea of fruits and vegetables added to a sensible diet but I will have to place the “pineapple pregnancy” supplement into old wives' tales probably propagated by the pineapple industry itself!

Happy eating!

In our next issue of our e-newsletter, “Sweet Concepts,” I’ll sort “Fact from ‘Phallicy?’” A little humor and play on words! Don't be shy! Ask any question! Submit it below or email me directly at fertility@dreamABaby.com. Please indicate if you want us to use your name or e-mail. If you’re not already signed up for our newsletter you can subscribe at http://dreamababy.com/e-mail-list.htm

Question of the week: Is it true that eating pineapple during IVF helps the embryos stick?!

If you are trying to conceive, then you are likely familiar with some of the common myths of achieving pregnancy. For example, the “hips up theory” – is it the best position for achieving pregnancy? Send in your questions and I’ll sort out fertility fact from fertility fiction.