I thought all my symptoms were a “normal” part of being a woman.
I have friends with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (or PCOS). I’ve known friends of friends who’ve had it. But since I didn’t have the symptoms they had (excess body hair, tendency towards obesity, loads of acne, hair loss etc) I never suspected I had it until it was discovered completely by accident.
When I broke up with my ex at the age of 32, my first thought was “Holy shit, I’m single at 32.” My second thought was “Holy shit I’m single at 32 and I want kids.” As if the prospect of starting over in terms of dating wasn’t daunting enough, I also had to somehow find someone who wanted children, and soon… Or did I?
I started to think about the possibility of freezing my eggs. It seemed like everyone over 30 was doing it these days, to allow them some peace of mind while navigating the dumpster fire that is modern dating. The procedure had become sort of an insurance policy for the perpetually dismayed with the state of relationships, a beacon of hope for those hoping for offspring but not wanting to settle for Mr Sends a Dick Pic Before A First Date because that biological clock is ticking loud.
Before I made any rash decisions that would cost me a kasquillion dollars, I thought it would be best to pay a friendly gynecologist a visit to check what my fertility situation actually was.
My Diagnosis of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
As part of the whole figuring out what kind of condition my baby maker was in, I had a wonderful (read: not wonderful) transvaginal ultrasound. This involves a condom-covered plastic rod thing being stuck up my vagina and wiggled around so the gyno could see all my internal lady parts. It was a very odd feeling, not uncomfortable, just strange making small talk to a near stranger with my legs in stirrups while he directed a vag probe around my insides for a sneaky peek.
“So you have plenty of eggs,” he said. “That’s good news. You probably don’t need to start thinking about egg freezing until around 36.”
Phew! I breathed a sigh of relief … well as much relief as you can be in with something clinical stuck in your bits. But then he directed the wand around to one side and said, “Okay so see these white spots here? Those are cysts.”
Okaaaay. So, what did that mean?
No really, what does that mean?
“You have multiple ‘cysts’ on your ovaries on both sides. One is a bit angry looking so what I might do is keep an eye on this one and if it doesn’t burst naturally during your next period we will have to put you in for surgery.”
Excuse me what now? Surgery? I had half expected to book myself in for elective surgery of the egg remove-y kind, but not “you need surgery” surgery. My brain was swimming a bit.
“I can see from the look on your face this is news to you,” he said. “So you weren’t aware you had Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome?” No, no I definitely think I would remember a thing like that.
My head was swimming a bit, so once I put my underwear back on and sat in his office I had a lot of questions. Was he sure it was PCOS? What was PCOS? How come I didn’t know until now? What were the symptoms I missed? What did it mean now?
The science of PCOS
He was very patient with little ol’ over-anxious me and answered all my questions and more. Firstly he was definitely sure it was PCOS but he reassured me it was easy to get on top of. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, he explained, is a hormonal disorder that affects around 18 per cent of women of reproductive age. It can be hard to identify as the symptoms are wide ranging and you don’t have to have all of them, or can have mild versions of them. He continued, “The cysts is also a bit misleading as they aren’t really cysts but partially formed follicles, each of which has an egg.”
As for not knowing until now, he told me many of the symptoms are either just considered “normal” by the person who experiences them, or else they attribute them to something else. The symptoms are caused by high levels of androgens, or male hormones in your body. All women produce small amounts of these, but higher levels present in PCOS sufferers can prevent ovulation and affect the menstrual cycle.
Did I have excess facial hair? Not the same type as my PCOS friends had had, just slightly darker hair some places that I had attributed to European heritage. Even fine hair that’s a tiny bit darker or more plentiful can be an indicator, the doctor explained.
Did I have irregular periods? Well, TBH I never really tracked it if I wasn’t having sex. It didn’t seem to matter if a period was late if there was no life-changing reason for it to be. I did sometimes get brown blood/discharge for a week or so before my period came though… Yep, you guessed it, that’s an indicator too. The Dr Gyno posited that if I did try to track my period, he would bet on it being erratic and unreliable, and probably super painful too. Double check on that last one, yeesh.
Did I have weight issues? Again, I didn’t have obesity problems like my afflicted friends, I just tended to yo-yo a bit; I never considered myself overweight, just not super skinny. Well PCOS is usually linked to insulin resistance too. It means that more insulin than normal is needed to keep blood sugar stable, which can also affect the function of ovaries. People with PCOS had trouble shifting weight because of this, and even a small amount of excess weight can bring on Type 2 Diabetes.
“Depression and anxiety are also really commonly linked to PCOS, have you had any troubles with those?” Um, only my entire life.
Suddenly a bunch of things in my life made sense and even though I had just been diagnosed with something no one wants, I felt a huge sense of relief. There was finally an explanation for so many little things I thought were just part of life for me. A chemical reason for so many of my problems. I found it hard to lose weight, I kept getting pimples around my jawline even in my 30s, I had frequent bouts of depression and crippling anxiety.
I suddenly didn’t feel “broken” anymore. It wasn’t that diets didn’t work on me, it was PCOS! It wasn’t that I was just shit at managing my emotions, it was related to PCOS! It wasn’t that I was over cleansing or under cleansing that I had hormonal breakouts… they were hormonal, so PCOS!
How my life has changed forever
Since my diagnosis of PCOS, a lot has changed. Now that I had a reason for my symptoms, I could begin treating them in the best way possible.
For example, a blood test showed that I was indeed insulin resistant and pre-diabetic. This is a fancy way of saying “If you keep doing what you’re doing, you will end up with diabetes.” This apparently explained why I found it hard to shift weight even when eating well. I needed to lose about 20 pounds off my already-small frame (and quickly) to avoid tipping into the danger zone. And to be honest, the thought of not being able to eat carbs for the rest of my life as opposed to just restricting them occasionally was enough to kick my ass into gear on this one. I was also prescribed Metformin, a drug that helps lower blood sugar. I now know I need to be more careful with what I eat, and ensure I do exercise because I sure as hell do not want diabetes, and people with PCOS have a predisposition to developing Type 2.
Then after years of therapy to try to work out my issues, I finally said yes to being medicated to help control my anxiety and depression. This is something I had resisted for years, but knowing it was more than likely a chemical/hormonal issue rather than just my maladjusted coping mechanisms alone really helped me decide this. The first month was utter hell, as my symptoms got worse before they got better. I am still trying to assess whether my medication is right for me, but I definitely have levelled out to a place where I am a lot more functional than I used to be. I still go to therapy, because shit, I’m still dysfunctional as hell, but the meds are doing some of the heavy lifting for me so it’s more effective.
I am also now on birth control all the time (despite being in the middle of a sex drought). The doctor explained that for me it was less for halting baby making and more for period and hormonal regulation. He told me it should help with moods, as well as keeping my periods predictable and less painful. He was, of course, correct.
So now I am living quite a different life than I used to, with more medication I need to keep track of, and health issues I need to be aware of. I also now know that there’s a very large chance that when the time does come for kids, I will most likely have to consider IVF even if I do have a loving partner who wants to get me pregnant. The unpredictability of my ovulation means it would be harder to conceive naturally, and as much as this should freak me out it doesn’t. Knowing now means I have probably saved myself a lot of time and heartache and “why can’t I get pregnant?!” down the track, and it also gives me time to start saving money for when it does happen.
Somehow even though there is more to be aware of, I feel more at ease knowing there’s an explanation for it all, and having a plan to treat it.
‘Cause you know, anxious people like plans.
Comment: What medical diagnosis changed your life?
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