These changes can be observed by any woman, and can be used by married couples as a valid method to achieve or delay pregnancy, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, which teaches that it is immoral to disrupt this natural cycle with the use of contraceptive pills, implants, barrier methods, or by having incomplete intercourse. Using these observations to help in the discernment of family size is known as natural family planning.
However, the same observations and data – commonly collected into charts for easier analysis – can be used to help diagnose gynecological issues such as ovarian cysts and growths in the uterus, called fibroids, as well as hormone deficiencies and other abnormalities affecting bodily functions. The information can also be essential in pinpointing issues surrounding pregnancy, such as the exact date of conception, infertility, and miscarriages.
This information is such a valuable insight into a patients health and symptoms – and an invaluable tool for doctors practicing reproductive medicine. "I just think it's invaluable, and I don't really know how people practice [gynecology] without having the charting," said Cvetkovich. "There's just so many uses, and it adds so much to your evaluation of the patient."
Cycles and Diagnosis
Disorders in other bodily systems – such as the endocrine system – can manifest in a woman's menstrual cycle and her chart. "Thyroid plays a role in almost every function of the body, so it may show up as a sign in the cycle," explained Cvetkovich.
For Christine, charting her bodily signs helped her to catch an issue with her thyroid that might otherwise have been missed. After charting for four years, she started noticing that some months there was no ovulation that could be detected by temperature or with chemical tests for the hormones that trigger ovulation.
"I had what looked like a really long cycle, and then eventually, what to the uninformed observer would look to be a light period. But because I knew I hadn't peaked, I was able to identify it as estrogen breakthrough bleeding and not a real cycle," she explained.
"It seemed like my body was trying to ovulate, and not really getting there."
She approached her doctor, explaining she was not ovulating and that she would like to find the cause for something that was out of the ordinary. The doctor then ordered comprehensive blood tests, and found that some of her thyroid-stimulating hormone levels were elevated beyond normal – in fact, her levels were twice as high s they had been a year ago.
After receiving treatment, her cycles returned to their normal pattern.
"I didn't have a lot of signs or symptoms of hypothyroidism, aside from missing ovulation," Christine noted, saying she wouldn't have picked up on the disorder had she not been charting. " I wouldn't have realized there was an issue," Christine she added, reflecting on the fact that she probably would not have even received the treatment she needed.
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"Whenever I'm sharing my experience with NFP with somebody, I'm always quick to point out not only all of the standard benefits, but that it enabled me to know my body and know there's a problem that so many people wouldn't be aware of."
How Fertility Awareness Helped to Find a Tumor
After a local NFP instructor put Maggie in touch with physicians familiar with fertility awareness, she became more aware of what was going on in her own body. She learned to observe her basal body temperature and cervical fluid signs – and noticed that while sometimes she had a more typical menstrual cycle and her chart showed the usual peaks and dips of a healthy young woman, at other times her cycle was irregular and her temperature was more elevated.
Even though she was not sexually active, "my body was acting like it was pregnant," Maggie said. The doctors at the Catholic fertility clinic sent Maggie out for blood work, which showed a high level of prolactin – a hormone present during pregnancy and breastfeeding. She took this information back to her pediatrician, and then to an endocrinologist, who ordered an MRI scan of her brain.
"There was a tumor pressing into my pituitary, pressing into my frontal cortex," Maggie explained.
"When I first heard the word 'tumor' I freaked out," she related, but thankfully, "it wasn't cancerous," but a benign growth which explained both her irregular cycles and some of her headaches.