Guest post by Sarah Harris
I was only 9 years old when I got my first period. I remember being excited by this new chapter of womanhood. In our culture, getting your period meant that you were officially entering adulthood. Granted, 9 seemed a little young to be doing so, but what child didn’t want to seem grown up?
A year later, things started to get hellish. My flow was so heavy that there were several incidents of me bleeding through my school uniform. For any 10-year-old, this was absolutely mortifying. To this day, I distinctly remember my Year 6 teacher calling my mum in the middle of the day, to ask her if she could drop a spare uniform. Of course, with the heavy flow came the cramps.
Every month, I dreaded those 5-7 days where I was constantly on edge and asking my friends if I had ‘leaked.’ By the age of 12, the pain was so intense that I was missing at least one or two days of school just to lie on the sofa, curled up with a hot water bottle. My first experience of dismissal came in Year 8, when things got so bad that I was urgently taken to A&E in fear of an appendix burst.
As my pre-teen self, lay on the hospital bed, clenching my stomach in agony, I overhead the physician telling my doctor that “the pain was all psychological.” I was embarrassed. Was this pain really all in my head? Was I just attention seeking or was there something really wrong?
The next few years involved the same vicious cycle of things getting so bad that I would end up in the emergency room, only to be dismissed without so much as a second glance. I was in my second year of University when I was finally able to get an answer.
My period started in September 2016 like clockwork. But this time things were a little different. One week in and my flow was just as heavy and painful. Two weeks later and it still hadn’t improved, so I went to my local University clinic. “Come back in a week,” said the GP who saw me. So, I did, only to get the same response, week after week.
By the 8th week, I was sick of things. After voicing my frustrations, my GP agreed to send to A&E. Given that I was at University and away from my family and regular doctors, I was nervous to say the least. But I was also desperate for an answer, the years of suffering had exhausted me. Given that it was 2am and I was bleeding so heavily, there was little the on-call gynaecologist could do, so they booked me in for a scan in the next week.
I had only heard of Endometriosis a few months before, through an old boxing coach who had been diagnosed with it. I had done a little Google research and, upon reading the symptoms, it sounded like something I could have – but I also knew that self-diagnosis was a dangerous path, so I pushed it to the side.
But the ultrasound showed several cysts all over my pelvis. “Do you know what endometriosis is?” asked the doctor. I nodded as she handed me a leaflet, full of basic information that I already somewhat knew. “We’ll put you on the pill and see you again in three months.” And that was that. I had waited 7 years, for what seemed like the shortest appointment of my life.
The next few months didn’t get any better. The bleeding continued for another 6 months, and the doctors just told me to continue with the pill. I thought a diagnosis would finally lead to a course of treatment, but things hadn’t changed at all. Maybe it was because I was only 19 and doctors didn’t see ‘period pain’ as a significant issue? Or maybe it was because I was a woman and, historically, we were perceived as ‘hysterical’?
All I knew was I was tired of it all. I was fortunate enough to have parents that could afford to pay for private treatment and so they did. After looking at my scans and meeting with my new gynaecologist, he booked me in for a diagnostic laparoscopy almost immediately. He was shocked that my doctors at University had even given me a diagnosis without investigating surgically.
I postponed my studies to have the surgery and finally get the treatment I so desperately yearned for. But when I woke up from my 3-hour surgery, my doctor gave me the disappointing news that my condition was so advanced that he was unable to treat it. He referred me for another surgery with one of the best gynaecologists in the UK, and the wait began yet again.
“She must have been in so much pain for so long,” he turned around and said to my parents. Finally, my pain had been validated. I could confirm that it was real. I wasn’t dramatic or weak, something was really wrong. Although the journey had just begun, it was reassuring enough to know that after so long, someone finally believed me. And that seemed like enough.
A year later, I had a lengthy 7-hour surgery with two incredibly skilled gynaecologists, who managed to excise endometriosis from my ovaries, uterus, bladder and bowels. I took a year out from my studies to completely recover, both physically and mentally.
Now, almost 4 years since my initial diagnosis, I can wholeheartedly say that I know my body better than anyone else and, if I feel like something is wrong, I should push for a treatment. It’s disheartening to see so many doctors still going with archaic and outdated conceptions of the female body, and women suffering as a result. But I’m hopeful that, as more research is done and the more we speak up, change will arise.
Your pain is real. Push for the treatment you need and deserve.