What is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome?

In 1990 I went to my pediatrician with a “weight problem”. Although I lived an active lifestyle and kept my snacking to a minimum, I was packing on pounds like I lived in a bakery. My menstrual cycle was also irregular ever since I’d had my first period the year before. The doctor had no answer about my cycle, but insisted I must be sneaking food from somewhere and ordered my parents to cut my meal portions further than they already had. For some time after that I was put on a strict diet to the point I often went to bed hungry…and I was still gaining weight.

Years passed as other inexplicable issues appeared: dark hair began sprouting under my chin; a dark, thick, gray ring formed around my neck like a turtleneck collar; eczema and psoriasis made their irritating debut, creeping across my skin; and my testosterone level shot through the roof, lowering my voice to that of an adolescent male. Doctors still couldn’t understand what was happening, until one gynecologist who had done her homework finally hit the nail on the head. My problems weren’t independent of each other, she informed me, but all were symptoms of a more encompassing issue. For the first time since my ordeal began, I heard the term “Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome”.

What is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (AKA Stein-Leventhal Syndrome)? It’s a metabolic disorder that also affects the balance of hormones in a woman’s body. As the name implies, a number of small, usually benign cysts form on the ovaries. This wreaks havoc on the body, causing a greatly irregular menstrual cycle and an increased rate of fertility. Obesity, facial hair, raised testosterone levels and skin disorders are other common factors of the disease.

Thousands of women in the US and around the world suffer from PCOS, but many cases – like mine – can go undiagnosed for years. You would think the obvious nature of many of the symptoms would be an indication, but PCOS itself is still a largely unknown and misunderstood disorder in the medical field. Too often, if a doctor isn’t familiar with the disease, they won’t even connect the symptoms and will continue treating the patient for different disorders.

PCOS takes its toll on women both emotionally and mentally as well as physically. The stigma attached to obesity in today’s society can be a painful and isolating feeling, leading some women to avoid social situations as a result. The skin problems and facial hair only add insult to injury, leading to low self-esteem and a feeling of having one’s femininity stripped away from her. Even I have found myself reluctant to speak on the phone or in the ladies’ room since my voice will inevitably be mistaken for a man’s.

Recent studies have indicated there are more physical challenges that face PCOS sufferers as they progress through life. Women with the disease are more at risk for high blood pressure and heart attack, and 40% of them will have Type II Diabetes by age 40. Infertility can sometimes be overcome, but treatment from a fertility specialist is often necessary.

Currently, there is no cure for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Symptoms are still treated individually, but the treatments are within the larger scope of the disease. Support groups are spreading across the US and the Internet; the largest online community is currently www.pcosupport.org, but there may be a regional group near you as well. If you think you might have PCOS, consult your gynecologist or endocrinologist to discuss the possibility. You will discover more challenges await you after the diagnosis, but the diagnosis itself is the first step to controlling the disease.

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