“You just have to put up with it.”
“It’s part of being a woman.”
“It will stop once you have a baby.”
“Keep calm and take some codeine.”
So many unhelpful suggestions.
Every. Single. Month.
There’s the annoying, mild cramping that many of us womenfolk quietly accept and put up with on a monthly basis. It can be a bit meh, but it’s tolerable. The sourcing of any cocoa & sugar based products becomes the reason for living. Maybe we can’t fit our favourite skinny jeans for a day or two. But really, these symptoms are nothing a few Panadol, a block of Whittakers, and a flattering shift dress can’t fix.
Then there’s the tiredness-like-you’ve-never-known-stabbing-through-your-guts-hot-poker-up-the-ass-every-time-you-sit-down-with-so-much-bloating-your-workmates-start-organising-a-baby-shower type symptoms.
Guess what? That’s not normal. Despite having been told generation after generation that it is, chances are, there is something more sinister at play. And for as many as 10 per cent of us, it could be endometriosis.
Endometriosis is a common inflammatory disease estimated to affect 176 million girls and women worldwide during their reproductive years – and 120,000 in New Zealand. Left unchecked, it can cause period pain, pelvic pain and sub-fertility or infertility. Endometriosis can occur from a girls’ first menstrual period, and early intervention is vital in order to improve quality of life, halt the progression of the disease and ensure fertility is not compromised.
Leading the charge for early diagnosis, especially in young girls, is Endometriosis New Zealand (ENZ), which has started the ‘me’ (Menstrual Health and Endometriosis). programme in secondary schools. The aim of ‘me’ is to break down the (often) awkward attitudes towards periods, educate about normal and abnormal period symptoms and increase awareness of endometriosis.
“Girls and young women need to know that it’s not normal to have distressing pain and other distressing symptoms with a period, and that they don’t have to put up with symptoms that affect their life. There is an average diagnostic delay of 8 – 10 years, and we need to change that,” says Deborah Bush QSM, Chief Executive of ENZ.
The ‘me’ programme was created in 1997 to meet the then recognised need to improve education and awareness of endometriosis. It was something that no one talked about, yet affects 1 in 10 girls and women. An education programme reaching teenagers was most important, because symptoms often start from the onset of menstruation. The programme promotes and encourages early recognition of symptoms suggesting endometriosis and timely intervention.
The most common symptom for young women to watch out for is distressing period pain. Other symptoms include lower back pain, bowel related symptoms like bloating and diarrhoea with the period, mid-cycle pain, pain at other times of the month, heavy bleeding, pain with sex and tiredness. It’s important to know that not everyone experiences all of these symptoms. Periods are not supposed to stop us from doing all the stuff that we want to do, like going to school and hanging out with friends and yet research shows that about 1/3 of girls and young women don’t go to school or work most months or some months because of pain or other symptoms.
Deborah says, “Endometriosis impacts on young women’s education, careers, relationships, and so much more.”
From my own personal experience with the disease, I can attest to that. The symptoms I experienced were on-going, debilitating, and isolating. I became depressed, and just getting through each day, whether it was my time of the month or not, often felt like a Herculean effort. I felt like I was carrying a full-term baby in my belly, and in some of the photos I took it beggars belief that my stomach didn’t actually explode in homage to Alien.
Thankfully, I had an amazing surgeon, Michael East M.B.B.S, FRCOG, FRANZCOG, MAOG, who not only specialises in endometriosis, but is one of the leaders in New Zealand for developing surgical techniques for the disease, as endometriosis can only be removed through surgery. Hearing about my symptoms and understanding my decades-long battle with painful periods, he was quickly able to decide on the best course of action for me, and subsequently, I am now seeing a light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, then I urge you to contact your GP and get a referral to a specialist. If endometriosis is left undiagnosed for too long, it can radically affect you for years to come, whether through your quality of life, or preventing you from becoming a mother one day.
Don’t let embarrassment about your symptoms or the fear of discussing ‘secret women’s business’ with a doctor hold you back. We are lucky to live in a country where we can access quality healthcare to ensure our bodies are working in the way they are supposed to – pain-free and healthy.