“How did you first find out you had PCOS?” Hmm. I was asked this question recently and it really threw me a bit. It then led me down the rabbit hole of trying to actually figure this out. After some deep thinking, numerous cups of tea and the occasional biscuit, I realised that PCOS has been part of my identity for so long, I didn’t know the answer to this question. Thinking about it logically, I suspect I was told when I was a teenager. I had terrible acne (and big, bushy, ginger hair as this was long before straighteners were commonplace) and went to the doctors where I was put on the contraceptive pill to try and regulate everything. The acne, oily skin and unexplained mood swings continued but it was probably a bit more controlled.
This thought process has led me to consider how much of an impact this diagnosis, or this awareness of my infertility has had on me growing up. After a few more cups of tea, and many more biscuits, I have come to realise the impact has been significant. I am still working through this but I now believe this diagnosis, plus the accompanying side effects of PCOS has had a huge effect on my self esteem, confidence and at one point my aspirations with regards to starting a family. I definitely had a time when I did not want children and I can’t help but wonder if the PCOS diagnosis had something to do with this.
It’s not all negative though. One positive of having this diagnosis, particularly around the time my husband and I were trying to start our family, is that I now lead a pretty healthy lifestyle and have done so for a number of years. I exercise regularly and try to tailor the exercise I do to what I call ‘fertility friendly’ exercises. When trying to conceive I spent a lot of time reading journal articles around the best forms of exercise for infertility and I noticed the resistance (weight) training and HIIT (high intensity interval training) have both been shown to support those with PCOS, especially when it comes to ladies who may also have insulin resistance. So, I started honing my training into those forms of exercise either in the gym or when out running. I found that this type of training was (a) really enjoyable (so great for my mental health), I loved the intensity and really enjoyed running and being outside and (b) seemed to work really well for my body type. By this I mean, this type of training really helps keep my BMI within the normal range and this helped me to ensure that I could be prescribed the Clomid which I needed to do to my anovulatory cycles. I also try my best to eat healthily, quite often a medittarian type diet, low levels of refined sugar and very little alcohol, and this seems to work well for me.
My experience of going through fertility treatment was quite strange in some ways, as I already knew I had PCOS when I first went to the doctor. I also knew that the guidelines stated you had to be trying to conceive for a year (I was only 32 years old) so I knew there was no point going to the doctor until this was the case. When I eventually went to the GP, I expected the process to be quick and easy. I had done my research and knew that the first line of attack was likely Clomid, possibly with Provera to allow me to start the Clomid in the first place (you take Clomid on days 2-5 of your period, but if you don’t have periods you could be waiting a long time). And whilst I was right about that, and confident that as I already had my diagnosis I would be in and out in no time, drugs in hand, oh how wrong I was! Looking back this was incredibly naive, but no one ever explains the infertility process so why would I have thought any different? From that appointment on wards, my experience was, like so many others, relatively slow and very frustrating. There are a number of scans and procedures you need to have to ensure that the Clomid may work (e.g. a HyCoSy to ensure my tubes were not blocked, yes it was painful and no I was not psychologically prepared for the procedure) and this just all takes time. I would however like to say that I am incredibly grateful to the NHS and all the NHS staff as other than paying for the final Clomid prescription, I didn’t pay anything for any of my treatment and the staff were amazing.
Eventually I did get the prescription for Clomid and I was lucky that I responded very well on the lowest dose and this led to the successful pregnancy of my first son Jacob who is now 5 years old. Did I experience the Clomid rage? Yes! Did I have hot flushes? Yes! Did I have some quite extreme mood swings? Yes. Did my husband suffer? Yes!
Was it all worth it? Yes. Absolutely.
A few years later we decided to try for our second, and so started the process again. Unfortunately the road was a bit bumpier this time and we did experience pregnancy loss along the way. This was devastating and we questioned whether or not we would continue. Pregnancy loss really takes an emotional toll on both the woman and her partner, and I think changes you as a person. The grief and trauma can really sit with you in ways you just don’t expect.
Eventually, we decided to have one last go and I am so glad we did as we are now lucky enough to have our gorgeous second son, Luca, 10 months old. Saying this, getting to this point was extra difficult as the Covid pandemic hit, meaning that for us and the timing of everything, after my 12 week scan (which I was a nervous wreck for, just hoping there was a heartbeat), I had to go to all hospital appointments on my own. Now this was tricky for a number of reasons, but particularly because having been through pregnancy loss in that same hospital, having been in the hospital early pregnancy unit, the cafe, the waiting room, all of these places were serious triggers for me. It was tough. It also meant my husband just wasn’t as involved as he couldn't be there.
We also had a bumpy pregnancy (no pun intended), being diagnosed with a uterine band (which I was told "....could kill my baby if it wrapped around the baby’s neck, or it could amputate one of the baby’s limbs, but that was okay as there was that famous paralympian who only had three fingers for that very reason...") and the consultant asked if I wished to terminate the pregnancy as I could just start again. We moved hospital after that (you have to self advocate on this journey).
Later, despite being fit and healthy, I was also diagnosed with gestational diabetes, but it was relatively mild and I managed to keep it under control with my diet. As a result of the gestational diabetes, I developed polyhydramnios which is excess fluid in the uterus and the baby was measuring big. Eventually I was induced a week early, but that didn’t really work and after labouring all night on my own, with painful contractions every 3 minutes, ( my husband wasn’t allowed to stay due to Covid regulations), the baby was delivered by emergency C section, healthy and well.
After all of this, I finally felt “free” to start thinking a bit about my life, and things other than trying to conceive, fertility treatment and hospital appointments. I just didn't realise how all consuming this process had been. So, whilst on maternity leave (in the middle of the global pandemic where everything was shut and there was a lot less support) I decided to train as a personal trainer and start my own business. I have always been involved in fitness and had been running fitness classes and doing one to one training in my teaching job anyway, so I knew I loved it and decided I may as well get the qualification for something I was already doing. In addition to wanting to be a personal trainer, I knew I really wanted to help others on their fertility journey so I decided to develop my personal training business with a special interest in supporting those going through infertility. I have called my business (or my third baby as I occasionally think of it!) Fitness Fertility, hoping that this will signal to others that this is a safe place for those on their fertility journey, looking for support with perhaps lowering their BMI, training in a ‘fertility friendly way’ , de-stress, or just really wanting to look after their mental health. I realised that in order to help as many people as possible I could train remotely and online so this means I can now support anyone, anywhere. I am also (at the time of writing) about to finish my pre and post natal training so I can support those who are pregnant as well.
I’m not really a spiritual person, but I am starting to believe that this is where I am meant to be and this is what I am supposed to be doing. I would not wish infertility or loss on anyone, but I do really hope that my experiences will help me to help others.
If I were to give advice to those just starting out on this journey….well, actually I probably wouldn’t give advice, I’d just listen. And I’d definitely offer them a cup of tea and a limitless supply of biscuits.