My PCOS journey began in 2010. I was living and working in Sydney, Australia and had been for around 9 months. I was 27 years old.
It had been a fun start to my time “Down Under”. I was living with my best friend Katie in a fantastic flat, minutes from the beach, had a great job and lots of new friends. Life was good.
There was however, a problem. At 5ft tall and never over 8 stone in my life, my weight had crept up to nearly 9 stone, which, on my tiny frame, I wasn’t carrying well. Worse still, was an increasingly visible and distressing issue of spots on my face. In fact I will call it acne at this stage, as it was just that; big, red sores that weren’t just unsightly but actually very sore to touch. At 27 years old with no previous history of weight gain or acne I just couldn’t understand why I looked so awful! The weight gain I put down to one too many glasses of wine and an excess of chocolate Tim Tams (a fantastic Aussie chocolate biscuit) and that, I thought, I could sort by getting fit. I signed up to a beachside boxersize class a couple of nights per week. It was however the acne that was crushing my self esteem and I couldn’t see a solution. I tried expensive facials and products to no avail.
One Saturday morning I washed my face, was make-up free and upset about what was looking back at me in the mirror. Katie had experienced acne in her teens so knew the issues and as a result, was rigorous about her skincare as an adult. She looked at my face and said Lorna, you need to go to the Doctor, this is more than just spots. I booked an appointment.
I walked into the surgery, expecting to be prescribed a heavy duty spot cream and the Doctor took one look at me, asked my age, a little about my medical history (I had come off the pill 6 months earlier, having been on it constantly since the age of 13 for heavy periods) and he said “I’m sending you for an ultrasound and for a fasted blood glucose test. You look like a classic case of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.”
Spots, ovaries, cysts? I was confused and afraid.
I went to the gynaecological unit at Randwick Hospital in Sydney and had my ultrasound. I felt sad. I thought the first time I would have that jelly feeling on my tummy, what I’d seen so many times on TV, would be when I was first expecting. Not in this circumstance. It seems silly now, but I felt like that ‘first’ was taken away from me in that moment. The Nurse did explain there and then that she could see small cysts on my ovaries but I would get the results via my Doctor in a couple of days.
I also attended to my local health clinic to the endocrinology unit for a fasted blood glucose test. In this test, I attended in the morning, fasted, and had my blood taken. I was then give a very sugary liquid and over the following three hours, had my blood taken on the hour, every hour. The idea of this test was to see whether my blood glucose levels dropped like a 'normal' person, or whether they stayed high in the hours after the sugary drink.
The Doctor explained my ultrasound and endocrinology test results and concluded that I did in fact have PCOS, my years on the pill had masked the hormonal imbalances in my body and coming off it had brought it to the fore. He explained what it could mean for me and who I needed to see next. He didn’t go into too much depth but referred me to one of the best in the business on this very subject. Dr Mark Beale. He also referred me to a dermatologist to try and help with a more immediate solution to my acne.
Dr Mark Beale changed my life. I have no hesitation saying that. The witty, eccentric and wonderful gynaecologist who set me on a life path I could never have predicted. He explained (really well) what PCOS was and what it meant for me now and in the future. Most importantly he wanted to get going on solutions and to my horror at that stage, it wasn’t 'quick fix' drugs, but a radical change to my diet and lifestyle. Low GI, he said. Limited alcohol. Keeping fit every day. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How could this make a difference? He said that medication wouldn’t be a consideration until I tried to turn my symptoms around the 'natural' way. So my next referral was to a Nutritionist who specialised in women’s health, Sarah Dacres-Manning. He also wanted me to exercise more. I was already doing a boxing class a few times a week, but he wanted me to up the ante. I signed up for a sunrise bootcamp on the beach. Nothing like doing things by half.
She was lovely. I forget her name now but understood how facial acne was crippling a 27 year old single woman’s confidence. She worked closely with all of the other experts in my story and evidently had seen 'Lorna's' many times before, but she did prescribe some hefty cream to start helping the issue from the outside. The other work would be done from the inside, this was the most important thing and this would take the time, but the cream would at least bring the redness and soreness down. Sure enough, it did help and with a bit of make-up, the spots were there but I was getting by within a month of that appointment, waiting for the internal magic to start working.
I won’t lie, I left my first appointment with Sarah Dacres-Manning (an appointment where I was interrogated about my eating and drinking habits, weighed and clamped all over for fat mass), angry, upset and miserable. Sarah developed an eating plan for me (I had previously submitted a two week food diary) that didn’t include a vast amount of the food I used to eat. And I was not a bad eater, not at all. Very rare would you see me eating burgers, fries, fizzy drinks etc… I was partial to a bar of chocolate and I loved pasta and cheese, but nothing crazy. I probably was drinking too much alcohol at that point, that was my vice… new country, making new friends…like I said at the beginning; Life was good. Life though, after this appointment, was about to change. Big time.
The new eating plan was explained to me in terms of Low GI and why it was absolutely imperative for polycystic women like me. It made sense, but I was angry and I wasn’t ready to listen. She wanted to see me again in a week to see how I was doing. This would then become a theme and I went on to see Sarah at regular intervals for around 18 months. All I could think was how this would impact my social life. It sounds silly, but at 27, my life revolved around work hard, play hard. Eating quinoa and counting my daily almond intake just didn't see to fit with my agenda.
As I returned to Sarah, the results were starting to show in my fat loss percentage but it wasn't significant and my face was not improving as quickly as I needed it to. I returned to Doctor Beale, he was pleased with the lifestyle changes I was making but felt that I needed medicated support in the form of Metformin, so I was prescribed 500mg a day. It was rough for around three months, I felt nauseous and it didn’t agree with alcohol (it made me stop drinking entirely for a while) but it did get easier and more importantly, I started to see results; my skin improving and my body fat percentage dropping. Note that I’m not talking about weight here as I was never overweight at 9 stone, but my ratio of body fat to overall body mass was the worry, it was vastly out of synch and it was pleasing to see this come down week by week. In fact those visits to the nutritionist were vital in keeping me motivated to eat well - I felt a huge sense of reward each time that percentage dropped.
I was also on a regular programme of visiting Dr Beale. Sometimes we’d just talk, sometimes I would cry. I was far from home, far from my Mum and having to turn my entire life around. Sometimes it felt like it was easy, other times it felt so hard. I wanted to eat a pizza. I wanted to drink wine. I wanted to be carefree, like I was before. This all felt like very hard work. There was a lot of 'why me' going through my mind and I didn’t like it. I also hated having to explain to friends why I wasn't drinking, or why I brought my own bread rolls to a BBQ, I was embarrassing an actually really hard to explain.
I learned in time that I could eat pizza if I fancied it and I could also have a wine with friends, I just needed to change my relationship with food overall and that would take time. It was about habit changing and big lifestyle moves. It wasn't a diet. I wasn't about quick fixes. This was forever. My journey was well and truly underway.