Q.My doctor said I have PCOS. I’m scared to ask what that really means. I guess I have to go on birth control. I’ve never had sex. Why do I need to go on the pill? I have really bad periods, but not every month. I made myself really brave for like a minute and asked my mom what PCOS is, and she said to write to you. What will it do to me? Will I get cancer of the ovary? I’m scared.
Mary Jo’s response: It is difficult to be told your body is acting strangely. I know this may sound weird, but it’s actually very good you’ve been given a diagnosis. Many young women experience symptoms dealing with their menstrual cycles (periods) without seeing a gynecologist (a doctor who specializes in women’s health). I’m glad your mom took you to see a health-care provider.
Fear can make it tough to understand a medical diagnosis. We hear the words, but our thoughts are focused on “what’s wrong with me.” Confusion is pretty common; you did the right thing when you asked your mom a question. Writing to me was brave and smart.
PCOS stands for polycystic ovary syndrome. A “syndrome” is a big word referring to a number of symptoms (things happening to our bodies) that are typically grouped together. Studies say between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 women of reproductive age (11 to 48) are affected by PCOS.
All people produce hormones, which are chemicals regulating our bodies. Women produce specific sex hormones called estrogen and progesterone; men produce hormones called androgens (testosterone). Even though these hormones are produced in larger quantities for men and women, everyone’s body produces some of each type of hormone. Young women produce a small amount of androgens (male hormones). Hormones make a woman’s menstrual cycle regular and maintain ovulation (when an egg is released).
With PCOS, a woman’s ovaries produce higher amounts of androgens than normal. Egg development occurs in the ovaries. The extra androgens interfere with ovulation (the release of the egg). Instead of the eggs maturing, cysts develop. Cysts are small sacs filled with fluid. They are not cancerous. PCOS is not cancer of the ovary, although women with untreated PCOS have a higher risk of developing endometrial cancer. The endometrium is the lining of the uterus.
Picture the ovary (which is about the size of an almond) filling up with cysts instead of releasing eggs every cycle. The cysts may grow. Young women living with PCOS may not have regular periods because they are not releasing an egg each month. Pregnancy is possible if a woman with PCOS has vaginal sex, however. Don’t assume you won’t get pregnant if you become sexually involved. Trying to figure out when ovulation occurs makes planning a pregnancy challenging.
Here are some symptoms of PCOS:
• Very heavy periods
• Missed periods
• Weight gain
• Trouble losing weight
• Hirsutism (when a young woman grows hair on the face, chest, abdomen or back)
• Thinning of hair on the head (alopecia)
• High blood pressure
• High cholesterol
• Fertility problems (difficulty getting pregnant)
Please remember a woman may experience some of these symptoms without having PCOS. PCOS can be genetically linked (women in the same family may experience the syndrome).
Treatment of PCOS may include the use of hormonal contraception (commonly known as birth control). The “pill” is often misunderstood. Taking the hormones in the pill will control menstrual cycles, reduce male hormones (androgens) and help clear up acne. You were not given the pill to prevent a pregnancy but to help regulate your cycles.
Here are some things you can do to improve your health and wellness:
• Eat for wellness: Avoid crazy diets. Eat green, leafy vegetables. Avoid junk food.
• Control your blood sugar: Cut down on white breads and foods high in sugar. Eat high-fiber carbs and protein-rich foods.
• Exercise. Exercise will help with moods and help regulate blood sugar.
• Follow doctor’s orders: Take your medication as ordered. Talk with your health-care provider and ask questions. Take charge of your health.
Many young women are living wonderful lives while dealing with PCOS. I am confident you’ll be able to adjust to this diagnosis. Let’s continue talking. I’m happy to guide you through this challenge. Good luck.