When I was 19 years old, I stopped getting my period. At first I didn’t think much of it. Barring some sort of creepy alien abduction scenario, I knew I wasn’t pregnant, and I knew that a skipped period once in a while was normal for me. I went on about my life as usual. However, after about six months of Mother Nature forgetting to bring me my monthly present, I went to a doctor. After several months of physician-related annoyance (more on that later), a blood test finally revealed that my problem was Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, better known as PCOS.
PCOS is an endocrine disorder that affects only that portion of the population that has ovaries. Nobody is really sure why some women get it and some don’t, but many physicians believe that it is probably genetic. Its list of symptoms varies from patient to patient. Some women, like me, will stop ovulating, which sometimes (but not always) means they stop getting periods. Other women start getting their period much too often, whether or not they are ovulating. Still others will experience unwanted body hair growth, sudden weight gain, and skin problems such as acne. Oddly enough, not all women diagnosed with PCOS have visible cysts on their ovaries.
My experience with PCOS was complicated by a factor that will be familiar to many women who have gone to the doctor with the kind of problem that only women get: male doctors can be absolutely useless when it comes to “female problems!” The same men who had helped me with sprains, infections and clinical depression suddenly became inattentive, stubborn and downright obstructive. They seemed to think that what men don’t have, women don’t actually need.
It was beyond frustrating.
I tried to tell them that I got my period twice, maybe three times a year, and that when I did, it was awful. Sometimes I would bleed so much that I would have to change my pad almost hourly, even with a tampon for backup, and would have cramps so severe that I had to call in sick to work. Other times, I would bleed only a little bit of thick, rust-coloured blood. These periods left me feeling exhausted and headachy, unable to do much besides sleep. And the doctors—again, doctors who had known me most of my life and been absolutely wonderful for every other problem I’d brought to them—told me that there was nothing wrong!
It took three years of pestering on my part to get one of them to concede that, yes, if something hurts that much, it’s probably not good. After an ultrasound and a variety of other tests (some of which involved needles and I am terrified of needles), it was concluded that, surprise surprise, my reproductive organs were not in good working order! I had PCOS. The doctor who looked at my ultrasound told me to imagine my ovaries as fruit. They’re supposed to be smooth like grapes. Mine were bumpy, like strawberries. I found this comparison unbelievably disturbing, but it did illustrate the point quite neatly.
Of course, knowing that I had PCOS and being able to do anything about it were two different things. There is no sure-fire way to get rid of PCOS; the best any woman can do is work around it. Treatments vary depending on what the patient wants to achieve. There are treatments to restore fertility, which PCOS often blocks. There are treatments to soothe skin problems or diminish unwanted hair growth, and other treatments to make sure that PCOS doesn’t lead to endometrial cancer.
My treatment, aimed to restore my menstrual cycle, involved taking hormonal birth control. My out-of-whack hormones had interacted very badly with my clinical depression, and a regular cycle was necessary for me to get back on my feet. It took almost eight years before my cycles became regular again without the use of hormonal birth control, and I still don’t know whether I will ever be able to have children.
PCOS isn’t the end of the world. It’s not curable and there are no easy answers, but it’s treatable. Chances are good that there is a treatment available for your symptoms. If you suspect you may have it, I recommend seeing a doctor, and I strongly recommend seeing a female doctor. I have found women doctors much more willing to listen to me where my ovaries are concerned!