During a decade of attempting to start a family, Yorkshire father Ciaran Hannington at first did not know where to turn.
But with a group of people who understood because they had struggled with the same circumstances, he was able to work his way through it.
His 10-year “fertility battle” is now his inspiration for tackling the mammoth challenge of trekking to Mount Everest base camp in Nepal from Sunday.
However, he also wants to give back to the charity Fertility Network, which supported him along the way and continues to help others experiencing what he went through.
Ciaran, 35, who lives in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, says: “I don’t want other men to feel as terribly low as I did.
“Fertility Network UK is a charity very close to my heart and, when I found out about this challenge, I jumped at the chance to raise awareness of male infertility while also raising money for Fertility Network.”
Ciaran and his wife Jennifer started trying for a baby in 2010.
They knew it could be more difficult for them to conceive because she has polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
However, after a couple of years of trying, tests showed that what is known as ‘male factor’ problems, including low sperm count and issues with sperm morphology and motility, were having an impact.
“I wasn’t expecting any issues,” says Ciaran. “It was the first I’d heard of it; I was in a bit of a shock for a while.”
Because of this, Ciaran and his wife had to use ICSI, intra cytoplasmic sperm injection, and Ciaran also made a number of lifestyle changes, including cutting out alcohol, in order to improve his sperm count and function.
He says: “When we started fertility treatment in 2012, my wife accessed a number of support groups but I found that support for men just wasn’t available and due to this lack of support I found my mental health deteriorating and although friends and family tried to help, it was hard for them to understand what we were going through when they had never suffered from infertility. Our experiences led me to gain a large amount of knowledge into fertility, particularly around how to become as physically healthy as possible to improve fertility.
“I remember being told on a number of occasions how important it was to be a good weight and eat the right foods, but this was where the advice stopped, no-one told me what foods and supplements enhanced fertility or what exercise could inhibit my fertility further.”
Ciaran put his experience and knowledge to good use by becoming a personal trainer and subsequently started a business as one, specialising in support for those embarking on their fertility journey.
Success finally came for the couple, though, and they now have two children. But it took seven rounds of IVF over 10 years, with the pair experiencing two miscarriages.
During their difficulties, counselling eventually helped Ciaran, as did finding Fertility Network’s HIMfertility male-only support group.
HIMfertility meets online once a month and is open to all men struggling with fertility issues, either their own or their partner’s.
Ciaran says: “During our first four IVF cycles I was reluctant to discuss my issues with anyone, despite wanting to so much. I didn’t feel there was a safe place to do so, and I was worried about what others might think and say.
“The HIMfertility group is a safe, friendly and open space for men to share their thoughts, feelings and concerns about their own fertility journey. The group is set up in such a way that if you just want to sit and listen you can.
“Despite my wife already being pregnant with our daughter, I found the HIMfertility support group allowed me to process my own experiences even more, while also sharing them with others.”
The Fertility Network says that men “receive far less support throughout treatment” for infertility, and difficulty finding spaces to talk about their problems means that some will suffer “serious mental health issues, depression and even suicidal thoughts”.
In a 2020 survey of just men, the network found that 42 per cent of respondents who had undergone fertility treatment did not feel fully involved alongside their partner, 41 per cent did not feel supported by family and friends, 78 per cent felt that fertility challenges have impacted their mental health and 95 per cent would like to see more support made available for men.
Ciaran will take on his Everest base camp challenge this month alongside Aaron Sutton and Tony Suckling, who also have experienced similar issues and found help from the Fertility Network, along with expert Ian Stones, who co-hosts the organisation’s monthly male fertility support group.
The trek will take them across 130km to 140km of terrain and to an altitude of 5,364m – parts having only 50 per cent oxygen levels – over nine to 12 days.
So far, Ciaran has raised more than £1,200 for the network but his goal is to reach £5,000.
Just as important, though, is the awareness the challenge is raising among men who do not know where to turn just like he didn’t.
Ciaran says: “Male infertility is on the increase, men need to know it’s ok to talk about it and they don’t have to suffer in silence.”
People can donate to support Ciaran’s Everest challenge here.