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'Superstore' Actress Lauren Ash Shares How Her Weight Gain Delayed Her PCOS Diagnosis

For many living with chronic illness, weight fluctuations are a common but frustrating side effect. Some conditions or medications can cause people to gain or lose weight, and managing these changes often isn’t simple. While a weight fluctuation isn’t always indicative of a health condition, it is still hurtful either way when others are quick to judge you or make assumptions.

Actress Lauren Ash, who stars on the NBC sitcom “Superstore,” is no stranger to the damaging stigmas that exist about weight. The actress spoke out on Twitter last year after hearing some “suggest that people ‘choose’ to be fat.”

“The ensuing dramatic tweetstorm was how I ‘came out’ as a woman with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS),” Ash wrote in a feature for Women’s Health Magazine published on Friday. “And it was one of the best things I ever did.”

Polycystic ovary syndrome is a common health problem among those born female that’s caused by an imbalance of reproductive hormones. This creates problems in the ovaries and can lead to cysts (small fluid-filled sacs) or infertility. Other common symptoms of PCOS include an irregular menstrual cycle, excessive hair growth on the face or chin (hirsutism), acne, thinning hair and weight gain. PCOS can also make it very difficult to lose weight.

Ash explained that in 2015, she was at the peak of her career with the premiere of “Superstore”; however, she was also struggling with a number of challenging symptoms that caused her health to hit “rock bottom.”

In addition to pain, skin issues, irregular periods and severe PMS, Ash said she also put on weight without changing her diet or exercise habits. It was this weight gain that finally made her realize something was up, so she made an appointment with her doctor.

However, the advice Ash received from her doctor may sound frustratingly familiar to many who have had health concerns brushed off due to their weight. She wrote:

‘Well, at 32, you are getting older now,’ he started. ‘So your metabolism is slowing way down. Try eating less and exercising more.’ That was it. His ‘fix’ for all my medical problems was to call me old at 32 and give me advice so generic I could find it on any random website.

Ash tried to take her doctor’s advice, throwing herself into an extreme diet and exercise routine, but after a month she discovered she’d gained more weight.

“I was so ashamed and embarrassed,” she said. “I felt like there had to be something wrong with me. Otherwise, why wasn’t this brilliant medical advice working?”

Ash was eventually diagnosed with PCOS after a suggestion from her dermatologist, who noticed her acne. In 2016, the actress underwent surgery to have some of the larger cysts removed from her ovaries, as they were causing her immense pain.

During the operation, the surgeon discovered there were more cysts than they previously thought with scar tissue twisting everything together. “You must have been in so much pain,” she told Ash.

Ash was simultaneously validated and upset. “I’d been telling doctors for years that I was in severe pain and only now, after they’d cut me open and saw the damage, would they believe me,” she said. “Is it too much to ask to just believe women when we say we are in pain? We shouldn’t have to ‘perform’ pain to be taken seriously.”

Her experience, unfortunately, is not uncommon, as many women still struggle against gender stereotypes in healthcare and must fight to be taken seriously and have their pain and symptoms believed.

Weight fluctuations can add yet another layer of difficulty in receiving proper care and treatment. Because thinness is commonly promoted in today’s culture, losing weight tends to be seen as “good” while gaining weight is often seen as “bad” – regardless of the circumstances.

In her essay “How Body Shaming Harms Women With Chronic Illnesses,” Mighty contributor Ama Wei explained how societal perceptions of weight gain and loss have affected her treatment:

My weight has gone up and down over the past years, and it hasn’t been lost upon me that when I visit my doctor at the higher end of my weight range, it is always discussed as a pertinent issue. I’m warned about the risk of weight gain with my medications, and my physical activity level is often dissected. However, when I present at a lower weight after a terrible flare of gastro inflammation, it seems my pain and fatigue are taken more seriously.

After finally receiving her diagnosis, Ash said she spent several years going through a trial-and-error process to find a combination of medications and treatments that work for her. She is feeling much more stable these days but said she still has some scars.

“And no, I don’t just mean the ones over my poor, broken right ovary,” Ash explained, adding:

Feeling unheard and discounted by doctors and other important people in my life left me feeling so isolated and scared. I felt like I couldn’t trust my own body or my own experiences. And I knew I didn’t want any other woman to feel that way! So when that fateful tweet gave me the opportunity to share my story, I jumped on it.

Ash has since created the Instagram account PCOS Sisterhood to share her experiences and connect with other women who are going through the same struggles. She has also partnered with PCOS Challenge, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness and increasing funding for research into the condition.

“Every woman with PCOS is different, and no two journeys are alike, but there is one goal we all have in common,” Ash said. “We have a voice, we’re not afraid to use it, and it’s time that people start listening.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore