It’s time to get down and dirty about periods, more about infertility, generic and a condition you may not know about. I was diagnosed with premature ovarian insufficiency (also known as premature ovarian failure) almost 4 years ago at age 29. It is a rare and fewer than 200,000 US cases are diagnosed per year. You’re probably wondering what this means so here is the simple answer: if you have a uterus, it is the loss of normal function of your ovaries before the age of 40. Infertility is a common result of this diagnosis because if your ovaries fail, they don’t produce normal amounts of the hormone estrogen or release eggs regularly (source). Sometimes, this diagnosis becomes synonymous with premature menopause, however, this is not the case. Menopause means that periods stop altogether, whereas with ovarian insufficiency, there is still a small chance of pregnancy.
I hadn’t gotten a period in over three months, so I went to my doctor who thought I may be suffering from Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, so she sent me for a bunch of blood work. However, my tests showed an extremely high follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) level – which is common in people with this a POI diagnosis. FSH is responsible for stimulating the growth of follicles in your ovaries and is released by the pituitary gland.
It quickly became apparent that I lacked a lot of knowledge on how the female reproductive system worked so let me impart some knowledge on you that you may not have known.
With normal ovarian function, the pituitary gland releases certain hormones during the menstrual cycle, which causes a small number of egg-containing follicles in the ovaries to begin maturing. Usually one or two follicles which are tiny sacs filled with fluid, reach maturity each month. When this happens, it opens; releasing an egg and here is where the general things we know about periods comes into play. The egg enters the fallopian tube where it can be fertilized by sperm, resulting in pregnancy, or you get your period. With POI, there is a disconnect between your hormones, and your ovaries. The FSH is trying to tell the follicle to begin maturation, but the message isn’t going through. There are several reasons this can happen: chromosomal defect, toxins such as chemotherapy or radiation, an autoimmune disorder, or unknown factors/spontaneous onset, which is what happened to me. It is can last for years or be lifelong, and there is no cure.
Complications from this diagnosis include: infertility, osteoporosis due to lack of estrogen which helps you maintain strong bones, depression or anxiety, heart disease, and dementia (early loss of estrogen can increase your risk of both).
Another downside is I get the joys of experiencing the symptoms of menopause 20 years before I should. You know how your mom probably complained about hot flashes at some point, and you probably thought, how bad can they be? They are as bad if not worse than she said they were. There is also general irritability, night sweats, vaginal dryness, and decreased sexual desire.
To ease these symptoms, I am on estrogen therapy, which you may know to potentially cause heart disease and breast cancer in menopausal women over the age of 50. However, because I am only 33, the pros outweigh the risks. I take both estrogen and progesterone daily. The weird part about all of this is the combination of hormones can cause vaginal bleeding again (ugh!), but it does not restore ovarian function. I also take a calcium supplement to try and prevent an early diagnosis of osteoporosis.
What I do know living with this diagnosis, is women are scared to talk about an ability to have children naturally. I mean, who can blame me, them? Who wants to say, “Oh yeah, I haven’t had kids yet because I can’t. Or “we’ve been trying for ages and nothing is happening”. For a woman to be told she can’t have a child on her own, it’s heartbreaking, embarrassing, and most of all confusing. You ask, “why me?”
As time went on, I realized getting a diagnosis like this means you end up going through the stages of grief whether you want to or not from denial, to anger, to bargaining, and finally acceptance (I know, I skipped a few). Sometimes I get so angry about my health I want to scream and punch a wall. Other times I am just sad because though there are so many ways to have a family if I want one, I know I will likely never have my own biological child. But most days, I’m okay. Most days, I don’t even think about it, and I go about my life as though I’m whole, because though I have broken parts, I am not broken.
I didn’t write this because I want to force women to talk about something so deeply personal or to give you all way more information on my medical history than you ever needed to know. I wrote this because I want you to know you’re not alone. If you suffer from infertility, you don’t have to suffer by yourself. If you have a scary health diagnosis, and chances are someone else has had it to.
And if all else fails, talk to me. I’m ready to listen. You can find me on twitter at @coolbreeeze_.
Written by Brie Statham