Meet Melanie Brathwaite, a graduate of the University of The West Indies, Cave Hill Campus and clerical officer at a statutory board. Although a self-proclaimed fashionista, there is much more to this 28-year-old than meets the eye as she works every day with a chronic pelvic condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
As the world marks Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome this year from September 1, 2018, Melanie highlights some of the challenges she has faced and why there needs to be further education on a disease that affects women of childbearing age.
Barbados TODAY spoke with Melanie about her condition and how she copes.
Q: Who is Melanie Brathwaite?
A: A constant work in progress. I will say that I am still trying to figure that out. I am a lover of music even though I am not talented in that area myself. I am a mood listener as listening to particular songs helps me to express my thoughts and emotions. You can tell a lot about how I am feeling by the type of music that I am listening to at the time. I am a creative being; I enjoy working with my hands whether it is [with] jewellery, accessories or clothing. I am a fashionista as well.
Q: If you had to describe yourself in three words what would they be?
A: A diverse, fashionable and opinionated person.
Q: When did you realize that your painful period was not ‘normal’?
A: I would say in my late teens to early twenties when I could not perform my daily tasks.
Q: At what age did you get diagnosed with PCOS?
A: I believe I was 22 or 23. It was a number of years before my first doctor’s visit and my actual diagnosis.
Q: What is PCOS and how does it impact on your overall health?
A: Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that affects hormone levels. It is a hormone imbalance whereby a woman’s body produces a higher than normal amount of male hormones and the imbalance causes irregular menstrual cycles and infertility challenges.
My PCOS symptoms include an irregular cycle. Sometimes I would not see my period for two to three months and then I would have a long cycle. My longest cycle was 28 days.
When my cycle comes, I would have at least seven days of heavy bleeding, severe cramps, blood clots, bloating, nausea, dizziness, migraine headaches and extreme fatigue. My cycle would also cause my feet to swell and hurt and I would have difficulty walking and would have to keep them elevated especially when sitting.
I also have pelvic pain with cramps that are awful and tend to manifest in the lower stomach and throughout the back with intense back spasms as muscles in my back tense up. I also have severe bloating, hirsutism- which is an increase of facial hair, especially on the sideburns and chin area, alopecia- which is the thinning of hair on the scalp, darkening of skin on the breast, stomach and groin area and sleep apnoea which often leaves me feeling more tired during the day.
Q: How do you manage your pain?
A: I’m still working on pain management techniques as I hate taking pills. I honestly do not like taking medication. I also find it difficult to get pills swallowed and would often have to crush them. I find that back stretches and putting pressure on my back help when I have my cycle. I often lay on my stomach and put pillows and other things that will add pressure on my back; keeping my stomach warm helps with cramps. I often put on a sweater and try to keep my stomach heated. Drinking green tea also provides a sense of calm and relief. When I am extremely nauseous, I use soursop tea and drink.
Q: What are some obstacles you face on a daily basis?
A: Fatigue – I am often extremely tired. Especially on the last day of my cycle and until three days after my cycle ends. It feels as if my cycle literally took away all of my energy.
Nausea – I suffer from extreme nausea as my sense of smell is heightened and the scents of everything seem stronger, especially the bad scents.
I also suffer from depression and mood swings as I have extreme lows and sometimes I do not feel to get out of bed or do anything. I pull away from everyone and just want to be left alone in my own world as it were.
Q: It has been reported that diet is essential to curbing pelvic conditions. Do you agree?
A: Yes! Everything is connected; PCOS is a hormonal Non Communicable Disease (NCD) so foods that affect hormones have a great impact on those with PCOS. Also, foods that affect diabetics and persons with cholesterol problems also affect PCOS Cysters.
Unfortunately, I have seen how certain foods affect my body especially the ones I like the most. I may enjoy eating something, for example, icecream or dairy and then the next day, I may have severe cramps. Everyone is different but I notice that my body behaves as if it has Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) as some foods make the cramps worse and the bleeding heavier and some cause migraines.
Q: What advice would you give to young girls who are experiencing painful periods?
A: It is not normal. Ask questions and seek help. Start with your family. Ask your parents if anyone else in their families have the symptoms that you are experiencing. Family history is important as NCD’s normally run in families. Seek a doctor’s advice as the pain will not go away and the problem will not fix itself. Seek a doctor and start a plan that best suits you.
Q: Do you think that Barbadian women and men need to be educated about the fact that painful conditions are not normal?
A: Yes! Unfortunately, some PCOS Cysters have to reach a critical point in their health before they seek help. For example, some had to be hospitalized because of anaemia or a ruptured cyst. PCOS is an NCD like all other NCD’s. It can have a devastating effect on society as it relates to productivity, medical treatment and quality of life if not treated effectively. Education is the key to effectively dealing with issues.
Q: As it is PCOS month, is there something that you would like to share with other PCOS survivors?
A: Seek help. A diagnosis provides you with a name which is something you can research. You are not alone. Find a group or persons who share the same issues, for example, the Barbados Association of Endometriosis and Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (BAEP) and PCOS Fairy Foundation. Discuss your feelings and issues, do not hide them. Talk to family and friends. Tell your supporters. Explain to them what you are going through and what you may need help with. Shop around until you have a reliable GP and OBGYN. You should develop a relationship with them so you can develop a treatment plan and monitor your situation.
But finally, eat clean and exercise. Your body will thank you and hang in there as you are a queen. (LG)