When I was fourteen years old, I started to realise something was different about my body. I started to notice the black hair that grew above my upper lip, my infrequent and heavy periods and the way my eyebrows, arm and leg hair was thick and black despite my hair itself being blonde. Most of these symptoms were passed off as typical ‘teenage girl troubles’ (even by my GP) and I didn’t see a reason to disagree. PCOS was not something that I was aware of throughout my teenage years, yet it is something that impacts my life as a woman every day.
So, what is PCOS?
PCOS (Polycystic ovary syndrome) is a metabolic disorder that affects 1 in 10 women in both the UK and USA. This metabolic disorder affects women’s hormones, leading to higher than normal levels of sex hormones (in particular testosterone) and insulin being produced. This disorder can trigger symptoms such as weight gain, fertility problems, period problems (irregular periods or no periods at all), excess hair growth (commonly male-pattern hair such as across the face and chest), acne, anxiety, weight gain and depression. Alongside this, women with PCOS may have at least twelve tiny cysts on their ovaries; made up of empty egg follicles. These symptoms commonly begin during late teenage years and early twenties.
Strangely enough, despite dealing with weight gain, irregular periods and anxiety for the majority of my life, I only started to question whether I had PCOS when I started to develop acne. I had struggled with heavy and irregular periods for so long, that I had stopped thinking of it as a problem and started to think of it as just another aspect of my life that I had to deal with every month. Yet, when I developed acne at twenty years old despite never having had it before, I started to question whether something was wrong.
At first, I passed it off as stress. I was in my final year at university. I was writing a 10,000 word dissertation and dealing with countless other deadlines and commitments, that I decided it was no surprise that my face was covered in angry, red spots. However, after four months they still showed no sign of leaving and I decided it was time to visit the GP. On my first visit, my acne was brushed off as a side-effect from university related stress. I was prescribed with a cream and antibiotics and told to return in eight weeks if the acne hadn’t faded.
When I returned to the doctor’s eight weeks later, my GP started to ask me about my life style, my diet and my periods. As soon as I mentioned my irregular and heavy periods, she started to ask me about other aspects of my body that had been brushed off for my entire life. The thick black hair that covered my arms and upper lip. My fluctuating weight and my anxiety. It was then, that she bought up the word ‘PCOS’. She booked me in for a couple of blood tests, an external and internal ultrasound and reassured me that once I had a diagnosis, I could start making the necessary changes. I went home, and started to Google PCOS. To my dismay, I couldn’t find much information. It was then that I started to realise how, despite affecting one in ten women, PCOS is a massively unknown topic. Over the next few weeks, I underwent blood tests and had an uncomfortable internal ultrasound. It was then, that I was diagnosed with PCOS. I was told by my GP that there wasn’t much else she could do for me. She printed out some documents from Google and informed me that once I started trying to get pregnant I should return. I walked out of the surgery that day, feeling underwhelmed and overwhelmed at the same time.
I ordered several books (particularly those written by Colette Harris) on PCOS, after finding my Google searches largely unhelpful. These books have provided a large source of comfort for me, especially within these first six months of diagnosis. I started to educate myself on the types of food I should avoid and increased my daily exercise. Slowly and to my relief, my acne began to fade and I started to feel as though I had control of my body once again.
The cause of PCOS is still unknown. It is estimated that more than half of women who suffer from PCOS are undiagnosed. Perhaps, this is because even our GPs are not sure of exactly how to identify this syndrome. Perhaps, as women we are so used to health related issues being brushed off as ‘women’s problems’ that we start to believe it ourselves. Perhaps it is the name ‘Polycystic Ovary Syndrome’ that hides what PCOS is all about. The truth is that PCOS is not just about women’s ovaries; it is something that can affect every aspect of health for women – mentally and physically.
Some parts of PCOS are easier to manage than others. I can manage my excess hair growth; making sure I am booked in for regular waxing and threading appointments. I can pluck the black hairs on my chin that appear every morning when I wake up. I can apply the prescribed cream for my acne and the scars that follow them. I can manage my diet, making sure that I maintain a whole food diet, cutting down on processed foods in order to make sure my hormones are under control, consequently reducing the symptoms. Other parts of PCOS, are not so hard to manage. I have to deal with the fact that I may not be able to easily fall pregnant. I have to deal with sometimes not feeling as feminine as I would like.
As of yet, there is no cure for PCOS. We can read books on it, manage our diets, exercise, mentally learn to deal with it and ultimately – help to raise awareness. We need to normalise the concept of PCOS and educate our fellow women (and men) on recognising and dealing with the symptoms that come with this disorder.
September is PCOS awareness month. If you suffer from PCOS and would like to submit an article on your experience with PCOS then please email firstname.lastname@example.org.