With side-effects such as acne and infertility, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome is a challenge to live with
There is no 'cure' for PCOS as such, but there are medications to help you adjust to the symptoms
IT'S FAIR to say that when it comes to women's problems, I have a very trendy condition – Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).
I was 14 when I was diagnosed with PCOS, which sounds very scary and serious, but in reality, is common among women. According to statistics, one-in-15 women is affected worldwide – including the uber-fabulous Victoria Beckham and Jools Oliver. They've become unofficial poster girls for us, and also something of an inspiration, having had four children each, naturally – a feat that is virtually unheard of among PCOS sufferers.
The exact cause is still unclear, but genetics are thought to play a huge factor.
I'm a bit of a trailblazer in my family – I'm the first one to be diagnosed with it, and nobody knows quite where it came from.
The reason I decided to write a personal piece such as this is simply to normalise the symptoms. Women shouldn't be ashamed of their bodies and what they're capable of – good or bad – and men shouldn't cower in fear if they hear the word 'ovaries'.
I've never been shy about the intimate topics I should be shy about; in fact, I'm completely fascinated by everyone's bodies. I've never had the ambition to be a doctor or pursue anything science related, so here I am, telling you all about my – very – private life. PCOS essentially means that your ovaries are enlarged and contain several benign cysts. It's also the most common hormonal disorder among women. It affects women whose sex hormones are out of balance.
Normally, the ovaries create a small amount of male sex hormones (androgens). In PCOS, they start making slightly more androgens.
The body may also have a problem using insulin, which is referred to as insulin resistance. When the body doesn't use insulin well, blood sugar levels go up and this can increase your chance of getting diabetes.
I have an abnormally high tolerance for pain, so when one of my cysts burst when I was 14, I thought I simply had a bad stomach ache . . . for four days. It was only at my mother's insistence that I went to the doctor.
Fast forward two days and four doctors later, I had an ultrasound that showed that not only did I have those pesky cysts, but one of them had burst, which was the cause of my discomfort.
I've had three cysts burst in 11 years, which might sound intimidating, but it's nothing to complain about for me personally, when a lot of other women who suffer with PCOS are crippled with pain on a regular basis.
I know girls who have fainted, been rushed to hospital by ambulance, or cried their way through the pain of a ruptured ovarian cyst. I, apparently, live a double life as The Hulk.
As far as side-effects are concerned, I'm quite lucky in that mine are minimal. I've battled acne for most of my life, but it has always been restricted to my back. I was 11 when it first began to spring up; and at 25, it's one of my biggest physical insecurities. Thankfully, now, most of it is scarring rather than a fresh crop, but take my word for it when I say that my self-esteem has never exactly been through the roof.
I've been on five different acne medications over the years, ranging in severity and strength, and none of them have worked. Name the cream, I've tried it. I realise I'm lucky because my face has always been relatively unscathed, but if you're a teenage girl already crippled with insecurities, it's no walk in the park when it's a hot summer day and you can't even wear a sleeveless top because your acne extends to your shoulders, or you refuse to tie your hair up because you're conscious of how the back of your neck looks. And don't get me started on the fear that hits when a new boyfriend sees your back.
I reached a stage around the age of 18, where I realised that I would never have perfect skin (even though I really, really wanted it), and I'd have to simply suck it up. Mother Nature finally kicked in and eased off on the skin front. It will never be perfect, and I have a lot of scarring, but there are worse things that could happen.
I've also always battled with weight fluctuation, which is another symptom. It was only as I got older and more mature that I realised that my body wasn't fighting against me – but, rather, that I wasn't working with my body. I wasn't treating it the way it deserved to be treated, and if I'm being honest, I still don't as much as I should. So my body still fights against junk food, lack of exercise, alcohol intake, and being a bit of a fool in general.
There's a specific PCOS diet, one that I never followed, for no reason other than sheer laziness. I've been researching it more lately and I realise how doable it is – I just need to accept that my body simply isn't the same as everyone else's, and I need to grow up and start minding myself.
I visited a dietician last year in the hope of developing a meal plan specific to me, but it didn't work out for me. I didn't follow the diet, which was carb-heavy, featured lots of processed low-fat snacks, and one that would actually have made me gain weight..
The reason for a specific PCOS diet is not
only to maintain basic health standards, but to keep your unique hormones in check. PCOS sufferers don't have the same hormone levels as 'normal' women – there are excess levels of testosterone due to an excess production of insulin – which have varying effects, depending on your severity. This can result in obesity, irregular periods, excessive hair growth, thinning hair, and even depression.
Count me as three out of five. I don't have thinning hair, but I do wear hair extensions due to very fine hair (I prefer to call it my 'baby hair') and I've never suffered from excessive hair growth. In some women, this doesn't simply apply to the normal areas – it can even result in facial hair. Excess body fat can make insulin resistance worse, increasing your insulin level and aggravating symptoms further . . . which brings me to one of my next theories about Victoria Beckham.
My reckoning as to the real reason she is very thin and eats as healthily as is widely reported? PCOS. The chances of her conceiving naturally would have been slim to none if her BMI (Body Mass Index) wasn't perfectly in keeping with the World Health Organisation's guidelines. It also accounts for her 'bad skin days', and for such reasons, I'll always have a soft spot for her.
As there is no 'cure' as such for PCOS, your gynaecologist will more than likely tell you to adjust your lifestyle to adapt to the symptoms. There are, however, medications to encourage ovulation, regulate menstruation, reduce hair growth, and to lower your insulin levels, therefore decreasing your risk of developing diabetes.
Now, menstruation is never what you might call "easy" for any woman. But imagine if your period came whenever it felt like it – the only consistency being its inconsistency. It might come every month, it might come every few weeks, but don't expect it to be regular. Many doctors will recommend PCOS patients take the Pill to regulate their periods, but it's never agreed with me.
I've made my peace with most of these symptoms. The one thing that I know I will struggle with though, is potential infertility. There was one stage in my life that I wasn't even ovulating, meaning it would have been impossible for me to have children. Now, I do ovulate, but my chances of natural conception are still relatively low.
This isn't a problem for me right now, but whenever I do want to have children, I more than likely have an uphill battle ahead. This is something that I have known for years, and I'm more than comfortable with the fact that I might not be able to give birth to children of my own, but it's a different story when it comes to a potential partner.
If I'm really, really lucky, I'll conceive naturally, but more than likely, I'll have to resort to IVF. If that doesn't take, I'm looking at adoption. I'm not married, nor am I remotely in the frame of mind for having children, but in a few years I know I'll feel differently.
I'd like to think we're in a day and age where this wouldn't be a deal-breaker for a potential partner, but it's something that they will have to know in advance, and it will certainly make for one very serious conversation. Unless, of course, my future husband is reading this - it will save me the effort of having to explain it in a few years.