A colleague and I were talking about visiting family during the holidays when she mentioned that she was nervous about it because she was the heaviest that she’s ever been. Even though it’s only 10 or 15 pounds, she feels like she doesn’t look like herself.
Believe me, I could relate to what she was saying. Actually, everyone reading this is probably shaking their head in recognition. We all go through times when we don’t feel our best because we’re heavier than we’d like to be.
The conversation got me thinking back to when I was 12 years old. When I got my first period, I had cramps that made me double over in pain. Don’t worry, people told me. It was completely normal.
Ever since I could remember, I had always had a weight issue. After I got my period, it got even worse. On top of that, I started getting facial hair. People finally stopped telling me that what was happening was normal.
I went to an endocrinologist and was diagnosed with Stein-Leventhal Syndrome, now usually known as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. It’s a hormonal imbalance that can cause a variety of issues with your menstrual cycle. It can also cause changes to the skin and excessive body or facial hair.
Haven’t heard of it? Neither had I at the time. But PCOS is surprisingly common, striking between 5% and 10% of women in their childbearing years. That makes it one of the most common hormonal endocrine disorders among women. Despite a lot of research, experts aren’t sure what causes it. They aren’t even in agreement about whether it’s one condition or several.
I’m usually not quick to talk about things that are so personal. I’m a pretty private person in many ways. But I did share my story with my colleague that day. I’m almost 60 years old, and telling other women about my PCOS over the years has brought me closer to many friends, family members, and even coworkers.
It’s important to connect about topics like this. Sure, they can be difficult or embarrassing to talk about. But I think one of the easiest ways to encourage women to take control of their own health is to share your own stories.
My story with PCOS didn’t end when I was 12. Fast forward to when I got engaged. Later that same day I was suddenly in a lot of pain. I went to the doctor and found out that I had an ovarian cyst. As it turns out, cysts are a common result of PCOS. I needed surgery immediately.
It happened again when I was planning my wedding. Because PCOS can cause infertility, I decided to try to get pregnant right away. However, I was having fertility issues. That’s when I discovered that I had another ovarian cyst.
This part of my story has a happy ending. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I ended up having three children, and they’ve been one of the main joys of my life. I’m grateful, because I know that many women with PCOS have an extremely difficult time getting pregnant.
But despite eventually having a hysterectomy, the struggle with PCOS has continued my whole life. One of the other side effects of the syndrome is gaining weight. Research reveals that 80% of women who have PCOS are overweight.
PCOS is a vicious cycle. The more weight you gain, the more your symptoms get out of control. I’ve worked hard to keep the weight off. I’ve done it all: Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Peloton, and Noom. I’ve tried gyms, cycling, and running. Believe me, I’ve done it all.
Besides obesity, PCOS can also put women at higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. On top of that, it’s also associated with sleep apnea and mood disorders.
I don’t mention all this to cause anyone stress. You can do things to help control PCOS, in addition to watching your weight. You need to always monitor your numbers, including body mass index, blood glucose levels, and cholesterol levels. Keep tabs on your A1C. Figure out what you need to get healthy.
And we’ve all got to support each other. I’ve had many clients who have wanted gastric bypass surgery, and rather than discourage them I’ve encouraged them. I believe people should make their own decisions about being healthy and feeling good. No judgments from me.
As for myself, I’m trying to let go of this idea ingrained in me that I need to be a size 0. I try to help other women do this as well. Don’t feel bad if you can’t quite reach that point on the scale. Don’t worry if the woman in the mirror isn’t as thin as you’d like. And don’t worry that other people are going to judge you because of it. Take care of yourself, stay healthy, and remember to support each other this holiday season. We’ve all been through a lot and it’s times like these we need to lean in and listen.