If you asked me when I thought I reached my absolute point of total hotness, my answer would be ten years old. Having started to develop breasts at the age of eight and menstruating at nine, by sixth grade I was constantly mistaken for a college student.
When I was eleven, a rapid weight gain of 30lbs in 30 days put an end to my middle school hotness. My skin became clouded with acne and dark hairs sprouted from wherever they damn well pleased. The weight continued to pile on. My periods became irregular and often appeared every two weeks as opposed to every month. I was a mess.
My mom argued that if I just lost weight, my periods would be consistent. When I was sixteen years old I spent an entire summer working out daily for two to three hours, even riding my bike two miles to the gym and back. I ended up losing 20lbs, but once school started again, all the weight came back within a matter of weeks.
And throughout that summer my period continued to appear every two weeks. My parents finally agreed that something was wrong.
My pediatrician said that I probably had this new disorder called Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a common endocrine disorder that affects between 1 in 10 to 20 women of childbearing age, and can occur in girls as young as 11. PCOS is basically a hormone imbalance that affects the release and development of eggs during ovulation, creating a range of health issues. Although the cause of PCOS is unknown, several factors play a role, including genetics and insulin levels.
A referral was made for me to see a specialist, who told me that if I wanted to have children I should start in my early 20s before I became infertile, but all I heard was “YOU ARE INFERTILE” and I abandoned the idea of ever being able to have children. She also put me on birth control to help regulate my periods.
At that time, the only symptoms of PCOS discussed with me were my irregular periods and inevitable infertility. It wasn’t my specialist’s fault. She addressed everything about PCOS with me that she knew to be true.
It wasn’t until a few years later when a train advertisement opened my eyes to what I was really dealing with.
“Are you between the ages of 18-24 and have irregular periods, persistent acne, excess body hair, and are overweight? If so, you may be eligible to participate in a study about Polycystic Ovary Syndrome…”
Prior to this, I assumed that taking birth control was the only responsibility I had, but here were new symptoms connected to PCOS. How was I supposed to manage those? I was told my acne was part of being a teenager and the hair had been justified jokingly as part of my French heritage.
I started to do some independent research and found that symptoms of PCOS included infertility; irregular or even absent menses; hirsutism (increased hair growth on the face, chest, stomach, back, thumbs, or toes); acne, oily skin and dandruff; ovarian cysts; male pattern baldness; skin tags and patches of skins in certain areas that seem thick or discolored; pelvic pain; sleep apnea; anxiety and depression; and—most prominently—weight gain or obesity, especially around the waist.
I read on about possible treatments but what stuck was the notion that losing weight was near impossible with PCOS. So I gave up. It’s the disease that makes me fat, so I’d tell myself, and it’s the disease’s fault that I am still, and always will be, obese.
During my 20s I continued gaining weight. I dumped the birth control, because what was the point of taking it if my body was broken? I believed I was already infertile and getting my period every month for no reason was annoying. My period became irregular again, but I hardly cared anymore. Why bother when I had no real control over my body?
That all changed when a co-worker told me that she was pregnant, she opened up about her PCOS diagnosis and previous miscarriages. She could tell I was surprised that she was not overweight and she asked me what I was doing to help treat my own diagnosis. When I informed her I was doing nothing and no longer cared, she encouraged me to at least start taking birth control again.
Conversations about PCOS starting popping up everywhere. I discovered some friends of mine were also in the process of learning how to treat their symptoms, successfully conceive, and lose weight. A dietician friend of mine recommended that I read Hilary Worthen’s book, The PCOS Diet. It was there I first learned that PCOS was a hereditary disorder and started to put all the pieces together.
My mom was obese for all of her adult life and became Type 2 diabetic in her early 40s. At 46, she passed away from a heart attack. After her death, I had so many conversations my dad and he’d say “Your mother had that,” and list a PCOS symptom, but I was never able to put it together on my own.
Later, I realized she also had endometriosis as a result of her own PCOS. Now, evidence shows more than 50% of women with PCOS will develop diabetes or pre-diabetes before age 40, and are 4-7 times more likely to have a heart attack.
During her life, my mom was constantly on me to lose weight, but was in no real way supportive. It was a very “do as I say, not as I do” situation. Like many people struggling with their weight, she tried all the fad diets, but found their rigidness and prepackaged meals challenging to maintain.
Additionally, she lived a very sedentary lifestyle, only occasionally using the treadmill that she had touted would “change everything.” Her overall approach to health and fitness never focused on the long term; Mom was always searching for a quick fix, and disappointed with the results.
As a young person struggling with PCOS, I needed as much help as I could get, but she was unable to provide it. Even when I put in the effort to lose weight, she was unsupportive when it came to changing my diet or even driving me to the gym on a rainy day. When she died, I knew that if I didn’t become proactive towards my health, it was likely I would end up as sick as she was, my life also cut short.
Since my diagnosis fifteen years ago, researchers have made progress in better understanding PCOS and its origins, even linking it to more health issues like depression, heart attacks, high cholesterol, and hearing loss. However, when it comes to what actually causes it to be developed, it’s still a chicken or egg situation.
A significant weight gain can exacerbate a fairly dormant gene in one woman, where another woman may be obese because her symptoms peaked early in her life. However, the one thing generally prescribed in order to help prevent additional PCOS related health issues such as diabetes, infertility, and endometrial cancer, is weight loss.
How could this make sense? I had been told throughout my appointments and consultations that it is nearly impossible for a cyster to lose weight and maintain that weight loss. On the other hand, my colleague demonstrated that it could be done.
I started slow. In order for weight loss to be sustainable, you need to make small changes over time so that those changes can become routine. I signed up for a gym and used the equipment that made me look the least foolish. I joined Weight Watchers and began paying more attention to my diet. About eight months into this process I had lost 30lbs and scheduled a physical so my progress could be applauded.
My primary care doctor was thrilled with my weight loss given that my body was “fighting to keep the weight on.” She wrote me a prescription for Metformin, a diabetes medication that has been found to help regulate insulin levels and promote weight loss for those with PCOS.
It became much easier to continue with my change of diet and exercise routine because I began to see results—and not just on the scale. My once high cholesterol reached a healthy level. Physical activities that I had come to love, like dodgeball and yoga, became easier and enjoyable. The anxiety of how I looked participating in athletic endeavors vanished.
When I started eating healthier, I had more energy and my skin began to clear up. Emotionally, I felt more in control once I started to lose weight, and made other positive changes in my life, because I was no longer feeling so defeated. It’s also interesting just to see your body change. Some parts became bigger, others smaller, but it was all the result of changes that I had made and work that I had done.
In three years, I have lost 75lbs. It’s the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. None of my personal PCOS symptoms have gone away, but I know that with every good choice I make for myself I am keeping a potential related health issue, like diabetes, endometriosis, or infertility, at bay.
In our society, weight loss is typically portrayed as some kind of reward in itself, but for me weight loss doesn’t offer such instant gratification. With PCOS the attainment of weight loss means I am improving my odds at living a long, healthy life, which is ultimately a much sweeter victory.
If you have symptoms of PCOS, make an appointment to discuss the possibility of having this disorder with your physician. With proper nutrition, physical activity, and medication it’s possible to live a healthy life.
If you have already been diagnosed with PCOS, take heart. A lot has changed since my diagnosis and today there is much more information available. These days, I am constantly seeing pictures of positive pregnancy tests and gorgeous babies born to women who were told they would struggle with infertility. And although maintaining weight loss requires an ongoing commitment, it is possible. Don’t let PCOS stop from you from living the life that you want and going after what you deserve.