During the summer of 1992 I noticed that I was not having a regular menstrual cycle. A doctor at Howard University Hospital informed me that I had a syndrome known as PCOS. Because I was about to graduate from Howard and had no real health insurance, I decided to delay seeking proper treatment until I got a job with health care coverage.

A few months later, I started to grow little hairs under my chin, just like my mom. I figured this was hereditary and just a cosmetic nuisance.

In the winter of 1992, I moved to Delaware and started my career. At 5 foot 9 and 140 pounds, I was considered shapely but not fat. Three years later I was 190 pounds and miserable. The hair on my face was now a disgrace, requiring a daily ritual of shaving. My body seemed to belong to someone else. Several doctors told me that I needed to go on a diet and that I would be fine if I lost weight.

The hair on my chin forced me to wear my hair long to cover up this cosmetic nightmare, and my self-esteem hit an all-time low. My career in investment banking was progressing rapidly yet my life was in a shambles. I had irregular menstrual cycles. Once, a cycle lasted for seven weeks, followed by four months with no cycles. I knew something was wrong, but I did not know how to combat the problem.

In 1998, my weight had climbed to 220 pounds and I was more miserable than ever. My social life had come to a complete halt and my sense of self-worth was diminishing markedly. I entered a relationship that became abusive, which reinforced my shame and feeling of hopelessness. I was anything but the fashionable young woman I thought I should be.

I began to learn about polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) on the Internet and was amazed at the information I found. I joined chat sessions with other women who had excessive hair on their face, legs and stomach. Some of them had gained up to 30 pounds in six months. Others were developing male-pattern baldness. Many were young, vibrant women of all ethnic backgrounds. Our frustration was our bond.

After I relocated to the Washington area last year, my primary care physician referred me to a reproductive endocrinologist--the same doctor I had seen seven years earlier when I was a student. He quickly diagnosed my PCOS and told me that women with PCOS have a greater risk of diabetes, endometrial cancer and other problems. I sobbed in his office as I described the havoc PCOS had played on my life--the shame of hair on my chin, the scars from shaving, the weight gain and the abusive relationship.

Two weeks later I began treatment with medication. In addition, I met with a cosmetic dermatologist who helped with the scarring and the skin bumps caused by the hair growth.

Since April I have lost 20 pounds. My appetite has diminished. I exercise regularly and eat more healthful foods. The hair growth has slowed. Most important, my confidence is returning because I am taking care of myself.

I still have a long way to go to reach my goal of 150 pounds, but I am active and enjoying my life again. I am still afraid to date seriously, but that will soon pass.

I am writing this very personal piece because so many women with PCOS either don't know they have it or don't take it seriously. I hope my story will encourage them to start asking questions and seeking answers--the sooner the better.

CAPTION: Diagnosed with PCOS in 1992, Karen Maria Alston only recently began treatments for the hormonal imbalance.