The first time I ever heard the word 'fibroid', I was flat on my back, legs hitched up in gynaecological stirrups, knees wide apart. The practice nurse at my GP’s surgery had just taken a sample of my cervical tissue for a smear test and was relaxing the speculum when she peered over the white sheet covering my nether regions and asked, uncertainly, "Did you know you’ve got fibroids?"
That was 10 years ago and, well… I had no idea. Uterine fibroids are non-cancerous growths that spring up in and around the womb; one in three women develop fibroids during adulthood, and a significant number of us wind up needing further treatment to remove them or reduce their impact. They’re newsworthy right now because the singer/performer FKA twigs has revealed that she ducked out of public life for laparoscopic surgery to remove six large growths after doctors discovered them in her uterus late last year. She shared an Instagram post explaining that the process of discovery and recovery left her feeling vulnerable as a woman. At 30, twigs still has many years ahead of her, should she want to start a family – and medical intervention helps women with larger growths to feel more secure when they do. Unless they’re large and obstructive, fibroids don’t impede pregnancy; they usually dwindle away after menopause when our bodies slow down the production of oestrogen. Medical advice suggests we can lessen their impact (and size) by taking vitamin D supplements, avoiding red meat, and loading up on citrus fruits and vegetables.
In my case, I’d suffered with heavy, painful periods since my teenage years – raging PMT, compulsory duvet days, and so much menstrual bleeding that I eventually named my monthly visitor "Carrie" in jokes to close friends and adjusted my schedule accordingly. In short, I coped. Other people’s bad period tales seemed to convey more extreme feelings of pain; I didn’t consider that my own threshold for pain could be extravagantly, ridiculously high. Hurting this way was just Lady Business 101, right? Wrong: Severe periods are the first, most obvious sign that a woman is living with uterine fibroids – they may not be found at a regular gynae exam, but they’re easily detected with ultrasound.
I’ve never been shy about discussing medical topics or gynaecological issues of any kind, and consider myself well informed about everything to do with personal health. People come to me for advice about every kind of ailment, from cancer (which I had as a child) to cures for the common cold (time – and hot drinks with chilli, ginger and honey in them, if you’re asking). Yet I had a blind spot when it came to uterine fibroids, one of the most common ailments affecting the female reproductive system, because in all my wide-ranging health conversations, it never came up before my practice nurse mentioned it. Once she did, I raised the topic with other friends who spoke of similar troubles, and it began to dawn on me how common my condition was, and how many other women were suffering.
A few years passed; I carried on coping. Nothing much changed until I had a devastating week in bed gritting my teeth and clutching my pillows as I bled out with a particularly gruesome period, and nearly fainted if I had to walk much further than the dozen yards to my bathroom. The referral to a hospital couldn’t come quickly enough. After a round of ultrasounds and an appointment with a bow-tied consultant surgeon who thought it was hilarious that his patient wanted to chat feminism while he performed a hysteroscopy, I was offered a medicated coil to shrink the fibroids or cauterisation of certain blood vessels in my uterus to staunch the flow of blood to the growths. A year later, because I was anxious and still couldn’t decide, my GP suggested taking ulipristal acetate, a selective progesterone receptor modulator, for a limited time to shrink the fibroids, which were embedded in my uterine wall and couldn’t be removed without damaging my womb. The pills would stop my periods, too – for good. Because I was already peri-menopausal by then, I chose the drugs.
The largest growth rested on my bladder, so I needed to wee once an hour while awake and couldn’t sleep more than four hours without bolting for the loo the moment I woke up.
Doctors often reach for fruit metaphors when they have to discuss the size of fibroids with their patients. FKA twigs, discussing hers, talked about cooking apples, kiwis and strawberries. My lovely new surgeon – an even nicer man – described a grapefruit-sized growth blocking my cervix; he may also have mentioned some plums. I’d gained too much weight; my abdomen jutted out as though I were more than halfway through a pregnancy. The largest growth rested right on my bladder, so I needed to wee once an hour while awake and I couldn’t sleep more than four hours without bolting for the loo the moment I woke up. The pills didn’t shrink my fibroids, but they did stop growing. If I quit the medication they’d start up again. In the kindest possible way, the new consultant outlined my options: live a distracted, sleep-deprived life with an enlarged uterus, or allow him to perform a laparoscopic hysterectomy, and get my life back on track.
Last November, I checked into hospital in north London and let my surgeon perform what turned out to be a textbook hysterectomy; my ovaries stayed behind to carry on regulating my hormones. My fibroids weighed nearly a kilo and once they came out with my womb, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. After an overnight stay on a ward and a few days convalescing at a friend’s house, I was well on my way to a successful recovery; the scars left by the laparoscopic procedure were minimal. For the first time in over a decade, I didn’t have a nagging, anxious feeling about my less-than-perfect health.
I’ve often written about the galling tendency we have as women to think of ourselves as a bundle of conditions and maladies. Lugging a wombful of mutant benign cells around for a significant part of one’s life is exhausting and doesn’t do much to settle unwelcome thoughts of being up against it. When twigs talks about her confidence as a woman taking a knock because of her health concerns, I get it. When she talks about finding herself in that optimistic moment after an illness, when it feels right to reconnect with the self you see in your mind’s eye, I understand that feeling just as well. Here’s to better health, and finding a kind of healing in whatever way works best for you.