The Myths That Can Make It Difficult for Female Athletes to Be Diagnosed With PCOS
“You’re an athlete, it happens!”
“You work out too much, it’ll come back when you’re done with the season!”
“Don’t worry, it’s completely normal.”
“Female athletes miss their period all the time.”
I’ve heard these statements so many times in my life that by the time I was 23 and no longer getting my periods regularly I brushed it off as completely normal. I had never had any other health issues and I was getting my periods but only about four times a year; to be honest, I brushed it off as “good genetics” and was often the envy of my friends who were on a 28-day cycle. I never thought anything was wrong – until my hair started falling out.
For many women, their hair is more than protein fibers on top of their head – it’s how they represent themselves to the world. I am one of those women. I love my hair – it’s long and brown and thick and tied for first for my favorite part of my appearance, so when I noticed large amounts of it falling out I became worried.
“Does my hair look thinner to you?”
“No? But what about here? I think I can see my scalp more than normal.”
“Yeah, you’re right, I’m just being silly.”
Despite what everyone was telling me, I wasn’t being silly. Well, maybe I was. I decided it was time to cut it. My hair was so long that the fallout could have been totally normal, but because of the length it seemed more intense. I tried to rationalize. I made it a girl’s day with my mom; we would get our hair done together. My mom’s stylist finished before mine. I was going back to my natural chocolate brown from a lighter, chestnut color so it took longer. My hair was still wet, extra dark from the dye against my white scalp when my mom walked over to my hair. I will never forget the look on her face of deep concern – an emotion I rarely see out of my very calm mother whose favorite phrase is “you’re fine.”
“Is that normal?”
“Should you see so much of her scalp?”
I sunk into my seat, holding back tears as my mom berated the hairstylist with questions about hair growth, hair cycles, how my hair is usually so thick and how to fix it.
“I told you, but everyone blew me off.”
I laughed nervously. Finally, the hairstylist walked away for a moment and I silently gestured to my mom to let it go. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
“We’re going to make you a doctor appointment.”
I sat in the car crying. My mind was a tug of war between two thoughts: embarrassment over my mom noticing and the feeling of being incredibly vain since I still had more hair on my head than 95 percent of the population. Who was I to cry over hair loss?
“I’m far from bald but it’s my hair, so better safe than sorry. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
I talked to my doctor about my medical history, my concerns and the incident at the salon. She kept circling back to my period.
“So, it’s always been irregular?”
“You’ve never investigated it further?”
“Have you experienced unexplained weight gain?”
Well, now I kind of felt silly – why hadn’t I looked into it before? The truth is, I was still working off the advice I had been given from the time I was 12. It’s obviously not normal to have your period only four times a year and in my heart I knew that. I had also experienced weight gain over the past two years that I had chalked up to the slowing metabolism of an ex-athlete who occasionally still ate like she was doing two-a-days.
“I think you might have PCOS, I’m going to send you for an ultrasound.”
“PCOS: polycystic ovary syndrome.”
I went down the Google rabbit hole and all the symptoms began to make sense – the missed periods, weight gain and hair loss. The only problem was all the resources I found referenced women who were morbidly obese or had extreme cases that caused them to have excess unwanted hair growth from the onset of puberty. The websites talked about how patients had reversed the symptoms of PCOS by simply losing weight or beginning to take diabetes medications to decrease their insulin-resistance. This wasn’t me. Yes, I could stand to lose a few pounds, but I work out a minimum of five times a week and eat healthy. I also wasn’t experiencing the symptoms of insulin resistance.
My doctor called a few days after I went in for my pelvic ultrasound to confirm what I already knew: I have PCOS. She explained that I was leading a healthy lifestyle and that I didn’t need to take extreme measures of treatment. The plan was to put me on a birth control pill and continue with my normal exercise habits, be more vigilant about my carb intake and wait for the symptoms to reverse themselves.
I got my prescription birth control pill and began taking it daily, something I had never been great at but also never had to worry about because I only had my period four times a year. I continued to search and search for resources for women dealing with PCOS who didn’t have large amounts of weight to lose in order to regulate their symptoms. I kept throwing new keywords into Google’s search bar until I finally hit the jackpot:
“Female athletes, PCOS.”
Bingo, I found my people! I read story after story about female athletes who all battled PCOS but often found out about the condition in their mid to late 20s, only after the more severe symptoms of PCOS began to surface. One common thread I began to recognize was that all of these women, like myself, were told that the warning signs were no big deal by doctors, family and coaches – so they believed them.
The subsect of the condition that affects normally healthy women is known as “lean PCOS” and it often goes untreated until a woman finds she is unable to get pregnant, has multiple miscarriages or, like me, experiences hair loss. This speaks to the trust that female athletes put in the people around them and the health myths we perpetuate when we deem someone healthy simply by looking at their physical appearance. The trust is not misplaced and the advice I received, like many others, was not given maliciously but just an example of the ignorance we still have about the true definition of health.
After four months of living with diagnosed PCOS I have begun to reverse the symptoms of the disease with the regimen my doctor prescribed, along with a few supplements suggested by the good ole internet. My hair has grown back and I’ve even begun to lose weight, slowly but surely. My mission now is to help spread awareness about PCOS to fellow athletes and to end the myth that missing your period regularly is normal for female athletes. The moral of the story is to always go with your gut and see your doctor when things don’t feel right to you – it’s your body and no one knows it better than you.
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