Victoria was 18 when she worked up the courage to talk to her GP about her period. She was worried about an irregular cycle, hair growth and her weight, and wondered if something was wrong.
“It was very embarrassing. I was born in Eastern Europe where you don’t talk about menstruation,” she says.
Her GP ordered some tests and a few weeks later she was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome – a hormonal condition that affects about one in 10 women of reproductive age.
“I was told that I might want to go and see an endocrinologist or specialist, but the doctor said: ‘Don’t worry about it now because you’re not planning on having children soon’,” she recalls.
A decade later, Victoria and her husband started trying for a baby. She was about 27 at the time and within a few months, she was pregnant. But her joy quickly turned to sadness. When she had an ultrasound 12 weeks into the pregnancy, there was no heart beat.
“We had to quickly understand that this was not going to be easy,” she says.
Over the next three years, Victoria endured another two miscarriages and found herself constantly facing questions from family and friends about when she was having a baby. To cope, she pretended she didn’t want children and brushed off the enquiries.
“There was a lot of stigma culturally about not being able to have a baby,” she says.
“It’s very hard when you’re watching your friends fall pregnant and have babies and you keep trying and it’s a constant no.”
When she fell pregnant the fourth time, she kept a diary to document everything that happened in the hope it would work out. She nervously passed eight weeks, 12 weeks, 18 weeks, praying she would get to 28 weeks because she had read that a baby had a good chance of surviving if they were born at that stage.
The baby grew to full term. As Victoria waited for a sign that the baby was coming, there was a moment when she felt like something had changed. She called her hospital and went in to be checked.
“They did an ultrasound and they found that the placenta had deteriorated and that there was little fluid left around the baby, so they induced me straight away,” she says. “I just knew something wasn’t right.”
Despite the emergency, Victoria gave birth to a healthy boy. She says the experience taught her to trust her instincts and advocate for herself in the health system whenever she feels like something isn’t right.
When her son was a toddler, Victoria and her husband started trying for a second baby. Despite the pain she had endured trying for her first boy, she wanted two children. Years passed without any luck. During this time, Victoria concentrated on her health to see if she could improve her wellbeing and fertility.
“I was eating well, I went to the gym a lot, I was working with a personal trainer, and I moved out of a high stress job to one closer to home to fit with my family life,” she says. “I felt from the inside like a warrior preparing to go into battle. In some ways that’s what being pregnant and giving birth can be like.”
There was more heartbreak during this time. Victoria had another miscarriage. But in early 2017, just when she was giving up hope, she discovered she was pregnant. It was successful and she gave birth to another healthy boy when she was 36. It marked the end of a decade of wrestling with her fertility and the devastation of three miscarriages.
While Victoria doesn’t know how much her PCOS affected her journey, she feels it certainly played some role. Looking back, she wishes she visited a specialist earlier in life to understand the implications of PCOS for her fertility and overall health and wellbeing.
“Be on the front foot, be a champion for your health,” she says. “If you have PCOS, go and get specialist advice… look at what options you have. You don’t want to go through additional heart break if you don’t have to.”
Victoria also wants women planning a pregnancy to know about carrier screening for genetic conditions like cystic fibrosis and thalassemia. After having her second boy, she and her husband were shocked to discover they were both carriers of thalassemia, giving their children a higher than average chance of having the condition. Thankfully, neither of her boys inherited the condition, but the risk was there.
“Get carrier screening done before you try for a baby. As much as we like to think these things won’t happen to us, you have to give yourself the best chance of having a healthy baby,” she says.