Sarah Farrell shares her experience of having an ovarian cystectomy, and the importance of recognising when ‘normal’ isn’t normal in relation to period pain.
Day to day, most of us put up with small health worries without paying them much attention. Whether it’s getting an intermittent headache from too much screen time or dealing with the seasonal specialties of cold and flu, odds are that most of the everyday niggles we contend with will diminish with rest, a solid night of sleep or some over-the-counter remedies.
But how do you know when ‘normal pain’ isn’t normal? What do you do when you know your body isn’t cooperating, no matter how much you’ve invested in taking care of yourself? And how do you convince your doctor to take you seriously when your problem is a part of everyday life for over 50% of the population?
I’m talking about periods. For me, the moment of realisation that what I was experiencing wasn’t ‘normal’ came when I found myself doubled over in pain in the loo at work, torn between the urge to curl up in a ball on the floor and vomiting into the toilet bowl. Bad enough when you’re in your own home, worse when you’ve got Sharon from accounts waiting outside to use the facilities after you.
I made my first GP appointment to discuss painful periods in 2015 when the over-the-counter tablets stopped cutting the mustard. At this initial stage, sitting down with someone to talk about alternative pain management was all that there was to it; prescription in hand, I happily trotted home with my super-strength painkillers and all was fine for about a year when, surprise surprise, the tablets stopped working. I was given a follow-up appointment for an ultrasound scan to try and detect anything out of the ordinary. At this point, endometriosis was mentioned as being a possible cause, but I was warned that the only way to diagnose this was with a laparoscopy. Some frantic Googling later, I was convinced that yes, this was what I had, and yes, we would get to the bottom of it.
After a bladder-bursting abdominal ultrasound, nothing abnormal was detected. In spite of this ‘everything is fine’ diagnosis, I was surer than ever (so too was Sharon at this point) that there was something wrong, especially as my symptoms only continued to get worse month by month. More vomiting, more being doubled up in pain, more mid-cycle bleeding and (most alarmingly of all), a seemingly second by second reduction in the size of my bladder. Back to the doctor I went and- crucially this time– I saw a different GP. One who couldn’t do enough to help. Within a week I had a letter for a referral to see a specialist gynaecologist at the hospital, and after that I was referred for an exploratory laparoscopy. As previously suspected, all signs pointed to endometriosis.
The operation itself was supposed to be a short, simple diagnostic procedure. It turned into a three-hour stint on the operating table, complete with catheterisation, sickness after anaesthesia and the removal of a mature ovarian teratoma from my left ovary (which hadn’t even shown up on my original ultrasound.) I felt strangely validated to know that my instinct that there was something wrong was right. Amidst the bloody sheets and sick bowls, I remember the most incredible nurse doing her utmost and I’m eternally grateful to the NHS. My unexpected night on an obstetrics and gynaecology ward also cultivated in me a strange sense of sisterhood with the seven or so other women who had been admitted- all with varying symptoms but a few suffering from the same problem as me.
Growing up there’s very little openness around menstrual health and well-being. When I was at school, you were lucky if you got the half-hour assembly from the lady from Always, after which you were handed a period starter kit, featuring a one size fits all pad, a booklet with diagrams featuring a suspicious-looking purple liquid (which I later twigged was supposed to represent blood), and some stickers. Cute. No conversation about pain management. No recognition of the fact that, surprisingly enough, not everyone can wear the same type of towel. No mention about what to do if you were experiencing period poverty. Just a plastic packet with a few ‘essentials’ to be hastily shoved in your locker before (heaven forbid) the boys might see you with it.
It’s surprising how much this ‘ask no questions’ approach translates into adulthood too. If I had a pound for the number of times that I’d been told that period pain is just ‘a woman’s lot’ I’d be writing this on (one of my many) yachts. It makes me sad and angry when I think about how much of my mid-twenties I missed because I was at home in bed doubled up with period pain when the cause of my pain could have been discovered and dealt with much earlier than it was. It was only through my own persistence and the understanding of one incredibly diligent GP that I was able to reach a conclusive diagnosis and resolution. The Royal College of General Practitioners estimates that a significant proportion of the female population of reproductive age living the UK experience menstrual-related problems, encompassing everything from heavy periods to endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome, with many sufferers experiencing a delay in diagnosis due to the stigma which still surrounds periods and period pain. If my own experience has taught me anything, it’s just how important it is to trust your own instincts and not take no for an answer. What is normal for someone else isn’t normal for you and there’s no reason why you should have to simply put up and shut up. The need for quicker, more thorough diagnosis is imperative, and amplifying conversation and de-stigmatising the entire issue will help us get there. After all, it’s about bloody time.
Artwork: Lily Lambie-Kiernan
Words: Sarah Farrell