Image description: A person putting on a pair of blue surgical gloves
Around one in ten women and those assigned female at birth in the UK have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and one in ten women or those assigned female at borth in the UK have endometriosis. PCOS can be summarised as having irregular periods, higher levels of ‘male’ hormones which produce more body hair, and having enlarged ovaries, filled with follicles around the eggs which prevent release. Endometriosis is characterised as the growth of womb lining tissue in the ovaries and fallopian tubes and takes the form of intense period pain, pain during and after sex, constipation and diarrhoea, and difficulty getting pregnant.
Yet since the start of my first period aged 12, when I began to struggle with irregularity and intense pain, up until about one month ago, neither of these particularly common gynaecological issues were suggested to me or explored. That’s almost ten years of worry, discomfort, pain and embarrassment I felt lumbered with; all ignored by medical professionals.
I recently decided I had enough and took myself to the GP in an attempt to get an explanation for what I was struggling with and to receive some sort of diagnosis. When I was about 16 my mum did take me to the doctor, suggesting that I had PCOS because my periods were so irregular. The male GP turned to me and said he didn’t want to diagnose me with anything and the periods would probably settle down. In short – I was being a hysterical woman and I should just calm down. I left the consultation room feeling embarrassed and ignored. So when I tried again I was determined that such a situation would not repeat itself. Only it did.
I specifically asked for a female doctor, hoping she might be more open. I explained my symptoms which included irregular periods, pain during sex and heavy period pain. She nodded away, making notes and then said “well, sometimes sex can be a bit uncomfortable if you’re not relaxed, are you having sex with a long term partner?” I was furious. The word I had used was ‘pain’, not ‘discomfort’. I was once again not being listened to and being treated as a silly little woman. I tried again – eventually, the GP sighed and I was reluctantly given an appointment for a particularly invasive check up, later followed by a hospital ultrasound scan and blood tests. At every single appointment I was asked to clarify my symptoms and not once did anyone mirror the adjectives I was using.
At every single appointment I was asked to clarify my symptoms and not once did anyone mirror the adjectives I was using.
‘Irregularity’ was ignored. I was told to get a period tracking app and to get organised. I’ve tried these before and the poor apps go into overdrive thinking I’m heavily pregnant when I haven’t had a period for six months.
‘Pain’ was demoted to discomfort.
My sex life was picked apart and criticised and I felt thoroughly dirty after every conversation, feeling almost unworthy of medical attention because I was assumed to be sleeping around.
The entire process, which is still ongoing, has been deeply upsetting and very dispiriting. And then I stumbled across this figure: It takes on average eight years from onset of symptoms to get a diagnosis of endometriosis.
But this must come as no surprise. Doctors, according to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Endometriosis, are simply not appropriately trained. The Group has recommended that the ‘Royal College of GPs, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and Royal College of Nursing, … review how to ensure their members gain the knowledge, training and experience they need to recognise the symptoms of endometriosis.”
But how can they have the appropriate training and knowledge when less than 2.5 percent of publicly funded research is dedicated to reproductive health, despite the fact that one in three women, or those assigned female at birth in the UK will suffer from a gynaecological health issue? To put that into perspective, five times more research is done into erectile dysfunction, which affects 19 percent of men, than into premenstrual syndrome, which affects 90 percent of women or those assigned female at birth. What we are dealing with here is the effect of misogyny in the health system which has devastating effects on women’s lives.
Five times more research is done into erectile dysfunction, which affects 19 percent of men, than into premenstrual syndrome, which affects 90 percent of women or female at birth. What we are dealing with here is the effect of misogyny in the health system which has devastating effects on women’s lives.
As Lyn Enright’s book ‘Vagina: A Re-education’ points out, the majority of our understanding of medical issues comes from the perspective of men; from experiments designed by and carried out by them. “Women’s issues” also don’t seem to hold much interest in terms of funding research. The only grant giving body for gyncological health, Wellbeing For Women, received 127 applications for its 2019 funding round and made only 14 awards.
Women and those assigned female at birth will continue to suffer as long as the interest in gynaecological health is limited. Period education in schools could also do with being improved as well. I’m sure many young teenagers don’t realise that their debilitating period cramps that force them home from school are not, in fact, normal. That migraine you’re experiencing, no, that’s not normal either. If co-codamol isn’t relieving your pain, there’s a deeper problem at hand. I think there is a myth that those who menstruate don’t talk about their health issues, but if you’ve wandered into any female bathroom you will find that sex, periods, and health are regularly talked about. Where the communication falters is between the lay(wo)man and the medical professional. Until there is more acceptance of what women are saying and more training around common issues, there will be no improvement in the lot of those who menstruate.
Image Credit: Clay Banks on Unsplash