First, to reassure you, there are changes that your wife will need to make and she will need to follow up with her doctor on a regular basis, but no, PCOS isn’t a fatal or an inherently dangerous disease.
What is PCOS?
Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a condition where her body secretes extra male hormones, called androgens. This causes her ovaries to produce many egg follicles each month, many more than the average woman. In fact, that is where the name of the syndrome comes from: poly, meaning many and cystic, meaning little cysts.
Symptoms of PCOS
Women with PCOS tend to have irregular menstrual cycles and physical symptoms like acne, abnormal hair growth and even hair loss. PCOS isn’t just a reproductive disorder though; women with this syndrome are at greater risk for developing diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease and endometrial cancer. All of these are preventable, but she must make certain lifestyle changes.
Complications and Management
Maintaining healthy weight through regular exercise and a healthy diet is essential, as is regular visits with her doctor. Part of her annual checkup should include blood glucose testing (for diabetes), blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. Early intervention is the key to treating and preventing these complications.
She also needs to see her gynecologist each year (or as suggested by her doctor) to make sure that she is getting a regular period. Women with PCOS do have a slightly higher chance for developing endometrial cancer than women without PCOS. The more irregular and fewer periods a woman has, the greater her risk becomes.
During a normal menstrual cycle, the endometrium is exposed to hormones, like estrogen, which cause the lining to proliferate and thicken. When ovulation does not occur, which is typical in PCOS, the lining is not shed and is exposed to much higher amounts of estrogen causing the endometrium to grow much thicker then normal. This is what increases the chance of cancer cells beginning to grow. This is very easily treated though, by using either the birth control pills or another hormonal supplement.
Unfortunately, infertility is a common issue associated with PCOS, simply because the disease causes irregular ovulation. During intercourse, sperm is released into the female body in the hope of encountering a mature egg. The two cells join together to form an embryo, which will eventually implant in the uterine wall and grow into a baby. Without the release of an egg, there is nothing to join with the sperm and pregnancy cannot occur. Therefore, if your wife isn’t ovulating regularly, you and she may have difficulty figuring out when to be intimate in order to conceive.
The good news is that pregnancy is not impossible with PCOS. While it can be a challenge, there are a number of treatments available -- though you may need to seek the assistance of a fertility expert or reproductive endocrinologist. There are oral medications, injectable drugs, and IVF, which is a more invasive infertility treatment. While not the way most couples envision starting their family, these treatments will be successful for the majority of couples.
What You Can Do
There are many things that you can do to be supportive of your wife. First, make those lifestyle changes with her, instead of singling her out. It’s much easier to stick to a healthy diet when your partner does as well. Instead of going out to dinner or a movie, go for a hike or bicycle ride together. Find ways to be active together.
Second, be supportive and understanding if she is struggling with her self-esteem or infertility. For obvious reasons, many women with PCOS report having issues with their self esteem. Understand that you both are dealing with infertility; it’s not just her problem. Suggest a counselor or psychologist if you think she is dealing with depression, and encourage her to take time for herself.