Sammy-Jo and Leigh from Lowestoft had only been together a few weeks when Sammy-Jo became pregnant. After the initial shock came joy and then sadness, as they lost the baby. They then tried again for eight years without success.
Unaware she had PCOS
Sammy-Jo hadn’t realised that she had Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal condition affecting one in ten women that can cause infertility, and is sharing her story to make others aware of how getting ‘fertility fit’ helped the couple overcome the odds to have their miracle babies.
Speaking during PCOS Awareness Month, which runs throughout September – when coincidentally her second child is due – Sammy-Jo, now aged 31, says:
“I remember being in primary school and saying to my mum aged about 8 ‘can I shave my legs please’? I started periods when I was around 9 or 10 and they were really heavy and painful but they were regular until I put on a lot of weight.
“After I met Leigh, I got ‘comfortable’. I wasn’t really looking after myself, gained weight and then my periods became really irregular.”
Symptoms of PCOS
Excessive hair, weight problems and irregular periods are classic symptoms of PCOS, but the condition is difficult to diagnose. It was only years later when the couple were referred to the fertility specialists at Bourn Hall that the condition was recognised.
Bourn Hall fertility consultant Dr Arpita Ray explains that women with PCOS often have abnormal levels of insulin – the hormone that controls sugar levels in the body – and high levels of testosterone, the ‘male’ hormone, and this can produce more body hair and acne.
She says: “Women with PCOS often find it difficult to maintain a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) of between 19-25 and this can have an impact on fertility, because being overweight or underweight affects the amount of insulin your body produces.”
In a healthy female, a mature egg is released each month from a follicle in the ovary – this is called ovulation; if the egg isn’t fertilised the lining of the womb is shed during menstruation. However, for women with PCOS lots of follicles develop and the eggs are not released. Instead, the little sacs fill with fluid to look like cysts and this can be seen in a scan. The lining of the uterus thickens until eventually it is lost in a bleed. This creates the heavy period.
A regular menstrual cycle is therefore a good indication that a woman is ovulating. However, by managing their weight, women with PCOS can become pregnant.
Dr Ray says: “If the weight gain is the only reason why periods have become irregular then there is a good chance that by losing weight you will restart ovulation and become pregnant naturally. If you don’t manage to conceive naturally, then becoming ‘fertility fit’ will also increase your chances of successful fertility treatment.”
Sammy-Jo continues. “We were both devastated about the miscarriage and so didn’t use protection, just carried on, and then we started properly trying to track my ovulation.”
The couple got married in 2012 and just three months later Leigh was diagnosed with testicular cancer. “He was on his own when he got the news and I was at work; he phoned me and we were absolutely devastated,” says Sammy-Jo.
Before his operation Leigh’s sperm was frozen at Bourn Hall as an insurance policy. Then in 2016 the couple felt ready to investigate their infertility.
Before going to the GP, Sammy-Jo went to Slimming World and lost four stone, and they both gave up smoking which meant they would meet the criteria for NHS funding for IVF treatment.
“With the ovulation tracking app I realised that there was a direct correlation between my weight going up and the regularity of my periods,” says Sammy-Jo. “I joined a slimming group and started exercising. I managed my carbohydrate intake because women with PCOS often crave carbs and sugar, which can cause weigh gain.”
Getting fertility fit
Your body needs protein to stay healthy and it also fills you up. “I ate lots of eggs and spinach; I used to say ‘I am eating eggs for my eggs,’” recalls Sammy-Jo.
“We had fertility tests. Leigh’s sperm sample was low but there was some there. The doctor said I was ovulating, but by this time I had lost weight – if he had done the tests before I lost weight it might have been different.”
The couple were referred to Bourn Hall for IVF but sadly the first two IVF cycles were unsuccessful. “That was when I hit my all-time low, in a really dark place and ready to give up. I was 28, my sister and sister-in-law were on their fifth babies, it was just hard watching everyone else get what you want and I found it really hard to bond with their babies, but my sister said ‘you must keep going’.”
This third cycle was successful but Sammy-Jo couldn’t relax until baby Bodhi was born. Driving home from the hospital, she had the most surreal moment. “I said to Leigh ‘my head is quiet’, the first time in about seven years.”
A little miracle
After Bodhi’s birth, Sammy-Jo worked hard to keep her weight under control and maintain her healthy lifestyle. “When I am healthy I feel a lot better – just a bit hairy that’s all! And my periods are regular, not heavy.”
Then the couple’s next miracle happened and their second child, conceived naturally, is due during PCOS Awareness Month in September.
“I went for scan with this pregnancy and my ovaries looked normal – no cysts. Before, they looked like pomegranates; it is just bizarre,” says Sammy-Jo.
“My advice for anyone trying for a baby is to get ‘fertility fit’ and if you have irregular periods to get blood tests to check you are ovulating. We have overcome so much to have our family – just thinking about it makes me teary! Being a mum is the most wonderful feeling in the world.”
PCOS Awareness Month in September is coordinated by the charity Verity. Getting advice on lifestyle can improve your natural fertility and controlled Ovarian Induction (OI) can help many women with irregular ovulation get pregnant without the need for IVF.