When the former NFL cheerleader Natalie Nirchi stopped menstruating at age 17, she was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormone disorder affecting up to 10 percent of women of reproductive age. She didn’t initially show any of the physical symptoms, like excess hair growth, cystic acne, or obesity, but a blood test revealed that she had high levels of testosterone and an ultrasound showed cysts on her ovaries.
“My doctor mentioned that one day I might have trouble getting pregnant, but didn’t offer any other information about the disorder,” Nirichi said. Other than the absence of her period, PCOS did not significantly impact her life until college, when she began experiencing shooting pains in her pelvis, mood swings, and rapid weight gain despite a rigorous exercise routine.
“It wasn’t like I turned 21 and started partying, it was like I turned 21 and all of a sudden, I was extremely depressed. No matter what I did, I just kept building this layer of extra weight around my midsection,” she said.
PCOS is genetic and presents differently in each woman of childbearing age. For some women, symptoms emerge shortly after they begin menstruating. Others may not show signs of the disorder until later in life, or after substantial weight gain, and many don’t receive a diagnosis until they are struggling to get pregnant. A community-based prevalence study published in 2010 found that approximately 70 percent of the 728 women in the cohort had PCOS, but had no pre-existing diagnosis.