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Life of POI: raising awareness of the early menopause

Lilli Bagnall shares the story of a York student who is using social media to educate others.

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Image Credit: Youtube - This Morning

Upon meeting Sheree, you'll be instantly struck by her ability to find the positive in every situation and her innate power in always embracing the good. Her beautiful energy has a way of instantly making you feel at ease as if you've been her friend for a decade. Studying a BA in Philosophy and Sociology here at the University of York, Sheree's using her modules in feminism and women's health to spread awareness of POI, a condition she has been living with since the age of 15.

Menopause is a natural part of a woman's life that signifies the end of her reproductive years, typically taking place between the ages of 47 and 53. But when Sheree was told she had POI and had already gone through menopause at just 15 years old she was devastated, her dreams of becoming a mum were crushed while she was still just a child herself. Premature ovarian insufficiency, more widely referred to as POI, is a condition that means the loss of ovarian function before the age of 40. Affecting just one in 10,000 women under the age of 20, POI means a woman's ovaries aren't working properly and her body is unable to sufficiently produce the hormones oestrogen and progesterone, which play vital roles in the health and wellbeing of all women.

The signs and symptoms of premature ovarian insufficiency are varied and can present themselves differently from person to person, with one key difficulty being that many symptoms are common complaints and can be attributed to life events, stress or other factors. Irregular menstrual cycles and missed periods are common during a woman's early adolescent years, often meaning medical professionals will not initially be alarmed by this symptom being reported by a young, female patient. Diagnosis of long-term conditions within the female population is often further complicated by implicit sex biases within the medical community, with research suggesting that misdiagnosis or failure to receive a diagnosis at all is common for women with a variety of disorders, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer. For decades, the male body has been the standard for health and disease in most medical education and research, leading to a clear lack of understanding of how diseases affect and present in women. POI is no exception.

Following long investigations by various doctors after complaining that she hadn't started her periods or developed in the same way as her peers, Sheree was diagnosed with POI in the midst of her GCSEs. This meant that she had to navigate the already complicated teenage years whilst also grappling with countless medical appointments, frequent hot flushes (or as Sheree likes to call them, 'hot flourishes') and extreme fatigue as a result of her hormone imbalances. The timing of her diagnosis impacted Sheree's capacity to process and understand what it meant for her: “I had to push it to one side to focus on my exams, not really processing or accepting it at the time, and having reality hit at a much later date was really difficult to deal with”. But Sheree got through her GCSEs, then through her A-Levels and is now in her final year at university, with plans to complete a Gender Studies Master's in London next year before going on to work in a professional role that enables her to use her voice (and charming Lancashire accent) to empower other women like her.

Despite the undeniable impact the condition can have on women's futures, medication in the form of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is available to mitigate long-term health conditions and to help with the difficult symptoms caused by POI. For young women with the condition, the main aim of treatment is to replace the hormones that the ovaries would ordinarily be producing before the age of menopause, making the treatment different from that of menopause which typically focuses solely on the treatment of everyday symptoms. Sheree comments on the irony of taking her hormone medication, which was the contraceptive pill, knowing that the reason she takes it isn't for contraception, but because she can't have her own children. Similarly, HRT can come in the form of a patch which people may wrongly mistake for the contraceptive patch, despite clearly having a very different purpose. Finding the right balance of hormone doses is a long and often turbulent process, leaving young women with debilitating and persistent symptoms such as headaches, mood swings and joint pains. Dealing with these symptoms in your twenties can feel isolating and lonely for many young women, with this vulnerability being further emphasised within the highly pressured and demanding environment that is university life. It's taken Sheree a number of years to find the right balance with her medications, trying a wide range of pills, gels and patches. She has now finally found a treatment regime that works for her and enables her to enjoy being in her early twenties, giving her the ability to grab every possible opportunity that life throws her way.

Having previously kept the gravity of her diagnosis quiet, Sheree spent the first Covid lockdown in 2020 reflecting on how she could take control of her POI and use her experiences in a way that would benefit other young women going through the same or similar things: "It made me want to discuss it more openly because when I was 15 I would have loved to have heard some-one spread awareness about early menopause and make it seem like it's a bit more normal than I thought it was". It was then, that Life of POI was born. Sheree created a public Instagram account (@lifeofpoi_) dedicated to sharing her personal experiences and spreading positivity to women who feel silenced by a medical system that is instead supposed to help them. Now boasting over 1,500 followers, the account has caught the attention of several major publications in the UK and further afield, with articles about Sheree and what it's like living with POI appearing in print editions of The Daily Mail and The Sun (and now Nouse). What followed was the incredible opportunity to be interviewed live on ITV's breakfast show This Morning, which Sheree fully embraced, appearing on TV in August 2020. When first creating her account, Sheree never anticipated she would be chatting with Ruth and Eamonn on primetime TV from her university bedroom – a life lesson to always expect the unexpected.

These experiences have helped Sheree accept her diagnosis and have given her the confidence to open up to potential partners about what POI will mean for both of them in the future and how they can approach any obstacles together as a team. The thought of discussing her condition with a partner once seemed impossible and too daunting to even consider but having shared her story on Instagram and receiving immense support from people she doesn’t even know has helped Sheree view her diagnosis ofPOI as something that doesn’t have to define her or become her whole identity. This highlights the necessity of increased awareness of medical conditions that are specific to women, with greater publicity meaning the wider population would require less explanation of certain disorders when they meet an individual experiencing them, empowering sufferers to feel less restricted by their conditions. Greater awareness would help to reduce the stigma of rare conditions and breakdown the existing divisive barriers that can stand between an individual from building a connection with a partner. There may not be a definitive right way to respond when someone tells you they have an incurable condition, but the right people will make you feel heard, understood and supported; these are invaluable qualities that Sheree now appreciates and acknowledges when sharing this information.

As her housemate, I'm unbelievably proud of Sheree but do still regularly remind her not to let her newfound fame go to her head and I also take responsibility for making sure she doesn't accidentally drunk dial the ITV producers she has saved in her contacts after a big night in Salvos. Sheree's 'grandma days' when she's struggling with POI symptoms present a welcome break from drinking and see us adopt cosy pyjamas and a facemask in front of a film in our littleYork home, and when she's feeling better you can always count on her to be the absolute life of any party she’s at. Sheree has taught her friends the real meaning of resilience and the importance of female empowerment within a society designed to break us; the impact Sheree has had on all of our lives is truly profound, and I can only hope that this life blesses her with as much joy as she freely gives to other people. To learn more about Sheree's story and to add a little dose of positivity to your day, follow @lifeofpoi_ on Instagram (you won't regret it!).

If you or somebody you know is in need of support or advice relating to early menopause and POI, Sheree recommends following The DaisyNetwork (@the-daisynetwork), a UK based charity for women with POI that provides a true sense of community while also being a great source of information.

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