Last year was huge year for me and my health. Within the space of a few months, I was diagnosed with Polycystic ovaries syndrome along with Endometriosis. What shocked me the most was that the symptoms that lead to the diagnosis of both conditions were ones I had lived with for years. The same symptoms that had been chalked up to over-exaggeration and teenage hormones, by both medical professionals and people in my personal life. The worst part was how easy it was to dismiss my pain, which is not uncommon for women – especially women of colour.
For as long as I can remember I have dreaded my period. Each cycle would equal excruciating pain, nausea, and often leave me bed-bound. Throughout my formative years, I was instructed to soldier on and “that every woman goes through this”. The reality of this approach was years of anti-nausea medication mixed with increasingly strong painkillers. I was left reliant on this medication, so much so that I decided to attempt to combat this pain with the combined pill.
The first few years on the combined pill were a welcome relief from the painful periods I’d become accustomed to. However, little did I know that with prolonged use my body would become resistant and the pain swiftly returned. I reached out again to my GP who informed me this was just dysmenorrhea (the medical term for painful periods), and that sometimes it’s best to combine the pill with painkillers. My GP then proceeded to prescribe these – without any further tests or information. What else could I do but listen and follow this treatment…
Alas, in January 2019 I experienced abdominal pain I couldn’t explain. I informed my GP and he switched my medication from co-codamol to naproxen – one level below morphine. At this point I’d had enough, I was experiencing intense pain regardless of whatever drugs I was taking. I booked in to see a new GP, and more importantly, I requested a female doctor. I explained my situation and pushed for tests. I was hoping a female doctor would be able to empathise and understand my situation. At last, someone was finally listening to me.
My female doctor referred me to see a gynecologist and to have an ultrasound. On average, the waitlist time in the UK for gynecology is 18 weeks meaning that I had ended up having an ultrasound in August after initially seeing my female GP in March. Luckily, I had a short holiday booked after my appointment so I used this time to destress and for the first time in years not think about my period. When I returned, I had missed calls from my GP requesting I come in. A few weeks later, I finally had an answer to years of pain. I was diagnosed with Polycystic ovaries syndrome (PCOS). I cried. A lot. For the very first time, everything my body had been telling me made sense.
I left my follow up GP appointment shaken, hands filled to the brim with leaflets and facts and figures. I was shocked to find out that 1 in 5 women in the UK have PCOS. What’s more, most women only find out they have the condition when they are unable to lose weight, miss periods, or struggle to conceive. For me, I was alerted by painful periods and severe abdominal pain. I was told so many times I’m not what people think of when they think of someone with PCOS. The question is, what is a PCOS sufferer supposed to look like?
PCOS for me has spurred so many lifestyle changes over the past year, such as diet and exercise. At 25, there is one symptom that stands out to me more than the others. That would be infertility. This diagnosis has forced me to think more about having children and raising a family at such a young age. While I realise this condition doesn’t mean I won’t be able to conceive, it does mean it will be more difficult. Unlike my peers, this is now something that I continuously think about. When the time comes, I’ll need to be proactive in getting pregnant. Also, PCOS doesn’t allow my body to break down insulin, meaning I’m more likely to develop Type 1 diabetes. My ethnicity also has a part to play in this. Being a Black British woman, I’m 5 times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Who knew?
The fact is, many women will be unaware they have PCOS – just as I was. As much as we are moving towards equality there is still a “gender pain gap”. I’ve experienced this first hand as my pain was downplayed for over 10 years. As a Black British woman, the stereotype surrounding how we feel pain suggests, I’m supposed to have a high pain threshold. My body had been telling me the same story for years and instead of listening, I listened to those around me that doubted my pain. By going with my gut instincts, I spoke up for myself and finally found out what was wrong. I felt the first-hand consequences of racial and gendered bias in the medical profession; something that undoubtedly needs to change so less women have to go through what I went through.
Written by Joy Victor