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What Women Need to Know About PCOS Right Now

An ob-gyn who faced this diagnosis in her twenties breaks down what Black women need to know about the syndrome and getting treated
What Women Need to Know About PCOS Right Now
PEOPLE IMages/Delmaine Donson

Last year, when actress Keke Palmer shared with fans that she’d been diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) after battling severe acne for years, she also revealed that getting the diagnosis involved seeing many doctors and researching her family history. PCOS, a hormonal condition that develops in women of childbearing age, typically 15 to 44 years, causes ovaries or adrenal glands to produce more male hormones than they’re supposed to. Though very common, the condition tends to be underdiagnosed and undertreated, due to its mild or seemingly unrelated symptoms. A study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism in 2016 showed that one third of women found to have PCOS saw at least three health professionals over the course of two years before receiving the correct diagnosis. In her twenties, Lisa McLeod, D.O., a board-certified, Atlanta-based ob-gyn, had her own struggles with PCOS; so she knows all too well what Black women face when trying to navigate the health care system for answers regarding diagnosis and treatment. Inspired by her own PCOS journey and the hurdles she faced, McLeod decided to attend medical school and focus specifically on issues related to women’s health. Here, she shares some facts about PCOS that she believes every Black woman needs to know.

Women may start to see symptoms of PCOS around the time of their first period, after gaining a lot of weight, or when they experience fertility issues while trying to get pregnant. PCOS can disrupt the menstrual cycle, as well as lead to acne, weight gain and dark skin patches. McLeod defines PCOS by three specific characteristics. One is hyperandrogenism, which develops in “a woman who has been exposed to a lot of male hormones,” which contributes to facial hair growth, acne and truncal obesity or belly fat. The second characteristic, anovulation, causes irregular menstrual cycles, while the third identifier of PCOS is a polycystic ovarian appearance—cysts on the ovaries—which impacts a woman’s fertility. Additionally, women with PCOS who have gained weight may produce too much of the hormone insulin. This can sometimes further impede a woman’s ability to become pregnant.

Doctors typically diagnose PCOS in women who have at least two of these three symptoms. If you suspect that you have PCOS, a pelvic exam, blood tests and an ultrasound should be able to confirm the diagnosis. “For each person who has PCOS, you’re going to address it differently,” says McLeod. “You’re really treating the symptoms, because it’s not like you can do anything to stop, cure or heal PCOS. We all have different symptoms. That’s why it can take so long for you to finally get the diagnosis.” But, she notes, managing the symptoms is where relief lies.

Though there’s no official “cure” for PCOS, treatment begins with changes to your diet and exercise. “The thing with PCOS is that it’s going to affect your sugar metabolism, so ‘eating healthy’ means not having a high-carbohydrate diet or one where you are ingesting a lot of simple sugars,” explains McLeod. Thirty minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a few times a week can also help women with PCOS lose weight. Hormonal acne, like other types of acne, can be treated with medication that include benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid and sulfur, but McLeod says it would be more advantageous to discover if there’s a hormonal component and address that as the underlying cause.

This article originally appears in the March/April 2020 issue of ESSENCE