“I had known it might take my body a while to get back in to the ‘swing of things’ but after I came off the pill to try for a family but my periods just stopped,” says Emerald.
Fertility tests revealed that Emerald has Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) a very common cause of infertility that interferes with egg production.
It is estimated that around one in ten women in the UK have PCOS, a hormone imbalance which can disrupt ovulation. It has a wide variety of symptoms which can make it difficult to diagnose and treat. To raise awareness of the condition, charity Verity has nominated September as PCOS Awareness Month.
Symptoms of PCOS
Not everyone has the same symptoms for PCOS and they can range from mild (or even no symptoms at all) to severe. Typical symptoms can include: irregular – or complete lack of – periods; irregular ovulation – or no ovulation at all; reduced fertility; excess facial and body hair; oily skin/acne; hair loss or thinning hair; weight problems – including difficulty losing weight; depression and mood changes.
Dr Thanos Papathanasiou, Medical Director of Bourn Hall Clinic says while not all women with PCOS have a high BMI, those that do can improve their chances of having a baby either naturally or with fertility treatment, improving diet and losing weight
He says: “For women with PCOS who struggle to lose weight getting help with nutritional advice and a new exercise regime to boost metabolism and help weight loss can also provide long term health benefits,” he says.
Emerald admits that when she and her husband Robert were going through their infertility struggles, she kept it hidden from people. It was only after successful IVF at Bourn Hall Cambridge, that gave the couple baby Margot, that she has started to be more open about their journey.
“It is amazing how many women I meet now who have also had IVF and felt embarrassed or that they couldn’t talk about it,” she says. “So, we were all going through it at the same time but ‘not together’. I realise now that supporting each other by sharing the journey is really important.”
So young when we started trying
Emerald met Robert when she was 18 and came off the pill to start a family after they married. “I was 24 when we first started trying for a baby. We were young so I never imagined that we would have problems getting pregnant.”
“I had known it might take my body a while to get back in to the ‘swing of things’ but my periods just stopped,” she says. “So I went to see my GP pretty quickly and she was really good and referred me to a gynaecologist. I was sent for lots of different tests including checking my fallopian tubes which were clear. It was an ultrasound scan that picked up I had PCOS.
“Robert always desperately wanted children and he had tests done which, at the time, identified his sperm had low morphology (shape and appearance). He took the news really well and once we understood what the issues were was just keen to take the next step.”
Losing weight boosts fertility
If women with PCOS have no other fertility issues, then sometimes gaining a healthy BMI of between 19-35 can be sufficient to stimulate ovulation (egg production). When helped by the fertility drug Clomid and the ovaries carefully monitored this can result in natural conception.
Emerald continues: “Because of the sperm issue, we were told there was no point in putting me on Clomid to try and regulate my ovulation and it would be better to refer us straight for NHS-funded IVF. Before that could happen, I was told I needed to lose two stone in weight.
“I have never been skinny and I knew that I had ‘let my weight go a bit’ but I hadn’t realised by how much…
“I started doing three or four exercise classes a week and going to the gym after work. I changed my diet as well. It was a massive lifestyle change.
“We were referred for one cycle of NHS-funded IVF at the end of 2019. We chose Bourn Hall straightaway because I knew all about their history and what they were about.”
Freeze-all gives body time to recover
Women with PCOS can over respond to ovarian stimulation and it is not uncommon for them to have a ‘freeze all’ when all the embryos are frozen. This gives the body time to recover and Frozen Embryo Transfer (FET) has good success rates.
Emerald explains: “I felt okay about the freeze all. Sadly, our first FET wasn’t successful. It was really hard at that point because we had been in lockdown and it seemed as though everyone was getting pregnant around us. On top of that it was my birthday the week we found out it hadn’t worked so it was all really difficult.
“Transfer for the next round was in April 2021 and this time Robert was allowed to come with me, it was really reassuring having him in there.
“Waiting to find out if the treatment had worked was the worst ten days of my life, especially after a failed one. When the pregnancy test was positive, it was such a relief.
“It was really stressful waiting for the viability scan at Bourn Hall, I was panicking. So, when we saw the little heartbeat, we just all cried, even the nurse, we just sat and cried for a little. It was wonderful.
Margot was born on 4 February 2022 at Addenbrookes Hospital.
Still feel the benefits of healthy lifestyle
“Moving forward in terms of managing my PCOS I just know that if I let my weight go up or if I change my lifestyle for the worst then my symptoms will get worse, so it is just not worth it. I have maintained my exercise regime. As soon as Margot was six weeks old I was doing exercise videos at home while she was asleep.
“Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is now a priority for me. By the time we had treatment, Robert’s sperm was fine so there is a chance that we might conceive naturally as I am having regular periods.
“It not, we have got one embryo frozen at Bourn Hall. We definitely want more children so may be going back for that last one.”
Getting fertility fit can improve your chances of having a baby, either naturally or with fertility treatment. For those concerned about their fertility, including the impact of previous illnesses and medical procedures, it is possible to see a Bourn Hall fertility consultant on a self-funded basis without a GP referral.
Bourn Hall’s fertility clinics across the East of England provide both NHS-funded and self-funded IVF treatment as well as fertility testing. Patients across the region who have undergone fertility tests at an NHS hospital and been told they meet the criteria for NHS-funded IVF can ask to be referred to Bourn Hall.
You don’t need to be a Bourn Hall Clinic patient to join the Fertility Support Group – the next meeting is on 14 September and takes place on Zoom. For more information visit the Fertility support group page.