Piece courtesy of Lil-Lets 

Relationships on Female First

Relationships on Female First

September marks Polycystic Ovary Syndrome awareness month, and we believe that it is time to put the spotlight on the condition. According to NHS England, PCOS affects 1 in 5 women here in the UK, but do we know enough about it? And do we know how best to support a loved one who has been diagnosed?

Many couples take reproductive health for granted. Considering the number of women living with PCOS however, reproductive health will always be at the forefront of the mind. It is vital to show support to your partner if they have been diagnosed with PCOS. The diagnosis leaves many women feeling worried and pessimistic, but with awareness, support, and treatment, PCOS doesn’t have to have to be such a daunting prospect. So, join us as we discuss all things related to PCOS, tackling the truth behind the taboo and learning how you can support a partner with PCOS, with help from some genuine PCOS experiences.

Many of the reproductive processes are controlled by hormones in women, from getting your period to breastfeeding and conception. Polycystic ovary syndrome is a condition which affects women’s hormone levels, specifically involving the production of androgen — male hormones. This imbalance can lead to irregular periods, meaning that your ovaries are not releasing eggs regularly.

A polycystic ovary is characterised by being enlarged and it will contain fluid filled sacs known as follicles, which surround the eggs. One common misconception is that having polycystic ovaries means that you have cysts — this isn’t the case. The follicles are underdeveloped sacs, and eggs will form within them. In cases of PCOS these sacs cannot release the egg, inhibiting menstruation as a result.

The signs of PCOS will usually become apparent during a woman’s late teens or early twenties — but it can affect women of all ages. The severity and range of symptoms experienced is likely to differ between people, but some of the possible signs to look out for include:

  • Irregular periods, a lack of any menstruation, or heavy periods (for the latter, non-applicator tampons are useful, as they are available in the widest range of absorbencies
  • Issues with getting pregnant — in PCOS, you are not ovulating/ ovulating irregularly, preventing an egg from being released
  • Hair growth which can be excessive on the chest, face, buttocks or back
  • Weight gain
  • Hair loss or thinning hair
  • Acne or noticeably oily skin

While there is no cure for PCOS, the symptoms can be managed and relieved through multiple approaches. After a woman is diagnosed with the condition, various medications might be prescribed by a doctor following diagnosis. Clomifene is usually the first option prescribed to help ovulation resume, or Metformin, used commonly to treat type 2 diabetes, can be given to women — although for PCOS it is used ‘off-label’ as it isn’t actually licensed for treating the condition in the UK. There are also medication options for targeting other PCOS symptoms such as acne and unwanted hair loss/growth.

Becca, 24, spoke about the treatment options following her PCOS diagnosis: “People are very unaware of how different the symptoms can be, and treatment needs to be quite personalised”. As well as the options we’ve discussed, there are treatments based on naturopathy that women could opt for. For PCOS, it is important that as women, we deconstruct the ‘one size fits all’ approach to managing the symptoms, both visible and not. Becca added that “it is possible for treatments to mask your symptoms rather than alleviate the root of the problem — and some women don’t even get a PCOS diagnosis before they’re offered medication for the signs”.

Many women we spoke to while researching PCOS expressed concern and upset in relation to the PCOS diagnosis process. Showing support to your partner in the early stages is of the utmost importance. First and foremost, listen to your partner. In the experience of the women we spoke to, it transpired that doctors often dismissed their symptoms or referred them to “over-the-counter painkillers” (Niamh, 22). Or, they ended up being passed “back and forth between doctors” (Jade, 23) with no conclusions being made. Jade also added that “PCOS isn’t treated with enough sensitivity, and as few of the symptoms are visible, people can often pass it off as period pain, which makes you feel invalid”.

This stage can be frustrating for women who are showing the symptoms. If your partner is in this situation, you must help them persist. Reinforce the fact that they are doing to right thing in seeking medical attention, accompany them on doctor visits for moral support, and let them know that you are on their side.

If the diagnosis finally comes, couples can feel daunted and overwhelmed. Your partner may not have even heard of PCOS (most of the women that we spoke to expressed an unawareness of the condition prior to their diagnosis). So read up! It isn’t just up to her to learn about PCOS, and it will mean a lot to her if you know your stuff. Not only will reading up about the condition show moral support, but it will also help you both cope with the symptoms.

Gaining information about fertility chances and potential treatments is of vital importance if you hope to start a family one day. For many women, fertility after a PCOS diagnosis is a big concern but the outcome isn’t always negative. With treatment in place, getting pregnant naturally is possible and there are multiple medications that are commonly prescribed to treat symptoms and stimulate fertility.

A fertility specialist will be able to provide more guidance for women who have PCOS and struggle to conceive naturally. As a partner, you must show support and attend any meetings so that you can learn about your options. You and your partner can take positive steps to manage symptoms and boost fertility, including modifying your diet and lifestyle. Don’t let her be alone in this — help out where you can and support any lifestyle changes she wants to make. Learn to cook meals that align with the nutritional advice you have been given. This way, your partner can adapt to these lifestyle changes as easily as possible. Unfortunately, some women do require further help to get pregnant in PCOS cases and in vitro fertilization might be recommended.

If your partner is struggling emotionally after her PCOS diagnosis, you will be an important source of support. Some couples find the diagnosis overwhelming, so consider reaching out for further support or going to counselling to talk things through. PCOS can have a huge impact on any couple, but as long as you remember that you are a team, and work through the diagnosis together, you’ll be able to carry on your lives together as happily and healthily as possible.

Another thing you can do to support a partner with PCOS is raise awareness. September is PCOS Awareness Month, but do we know enough about how it affects women’s bodies and do we feel that it is approached in the right way?

Since the signs of PCOS affect everyone differently, there is a vast spectrum for experiencing the condition and your partner might only notice one or two mild symptoms. Education and awareness are key in tackling this taboo. We need to help normalise the experience of PCOS and encourage women to seek the right guidance and healthcare. Don’t shy away from the subject — talk about PCOS, educate others and spread the message during awareness month.