Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that affects 1 in 10 women in the UK, yet despite this there is a surprising lack of understanding around it. Even the name itself is misleading – it has nothing to do with cysts, the ovaries are instead enlarged by fluid-filled sacs. The NHS defines PCOS as a condition affecting the functionality of women’s ovaries, diagnosed by the presence of irregular periods, excess androgen, and polycystic ovaries. The cause of PCOS is still unknown, but it is thought to be related to abnormal hormone levels.
The lack of understanding of PCOS speaks directly to the gender pain gap, i.e. the idea that women’s pain is not taken seriously. The BBC defines the gender pain gap as ‘a form of discrimination within healthcare where unconscious medical bias contributes to women’s pain being written off either as a normal part of womanhood or as a matter of little relevance’. For example, it takes an average of 8 years for women to receive a diagnosis of endometriosis. Therefore, it is unsurprising that women struggle to seek help surrounding these issues given the stigma of hysteria attached to their health concerns and the general feeling that they will be ignored. Women’s issues are consistently taken less seriously than men’s and tend to be sidelined. For example, it has been noted that taking the pill is more likely to cause blood clots than receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine – however, the side effects of the latter produced more outrage, likely due to the fact that it also implicates men.
‘The gender pain gap is a form of discrimination within healthcare where unconscious medical bias contributes to women’s pain being written off either as a normal part of womanhood or as a matter of little relevance.’
Iris Pase, BBC The Social contributor
We have seen evidence of this gender pain gap in our own student community. After speaking to a young female student about her experience with the Bristol Student Health Service, it seems reasonable to assume that the gender pain gap is no myth. The young woman of 20 years old at the time, shared her persistent symptoms (irregular periods, excess hair growth, struggle losing weight and fatigue amongst others) with a female doctor and expressed the great distress they continued to cause her. Unfortunately, her concerns were met with a largely dismissive attitude and little sympathy; she was told there was ‘nothing she could do about her condition unless attempting to get pregnant’ and that a diagnosis would otherwise serve no purpose. Despite the limited treatment options available for PCOS, this lack of understanding and appreciation of its hugely debilitating effect on individuals’ physical and mental health is unacceptable and cannot continue. Women suffering from PCOS would deserve at the very least to feel heard by their GP, who should be able to offer emotional support and provide means of symptom alleviation despite their age or future fertility plans.
Arabella Hyatt, another student here at the University of Bristol, told us of the upsetting way in which she was given her diagnosis. Arabella had been suffering from an eating disorder, which her GP used to explain away her lack of periods. ‘My worries were constantly dismissed until I started to get better’, she told us, despite the fact she had never experienced regular periods. Even after she received her diagnosis, a year later, she was told very little about the symptoms or effects of PCOS – ‘I was told this was common and put on the contraceptive pill to regulate my period – and that was all.’ Arabella told us that through her own online research and involvement in online communities, she began to understand PCOS better and that she will ‘always be grateful that other women had posted their stories’, but she noted that ‘the dismissive nature of my diagnosis will always be upsetting.’
‘I was told this was common and put on the contraceptive pill to regulate my period – and that was all’
Arabella Hyatt, UoB student
At present, there is no cure for PCOS – we are only able to treat the symptoms. The main way PCOS is treated at the moment is with the pill, but that has many negative mental and physical implications, such as an increased link to breast cancer and the previously mentioned blood clots. There is also no known cause of PCOS, more in-depth research is required to figure out both the cure and the causes. It is also notable that there has been no real separate focus purely on PCOS – it gets grouped together with other ‘women’s issues’ and therefore is minimised. On the 1st of November, Parliament had a debate around increasing funding for research into PCOS and endometriosis, where the members agreed that greater funding was needed. We are currently awaiting the government’s response on how to make this funding available. We can only hope that the government will finally take this seriously.
If you are suffering from PCOS, here are some resources for you to try in the meantime:
- Verity: https://www.verity-pcos.org.uk/support-for-you.html
- PCOS Awareness Assosciation: https://www.pcosaa.org
- NHS Website: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos/