UPDATE: Read about my entire fibroids story. In Part 2 of My Uterine Fibroids Journey, I detail my experience with my myomectomy surgery and recovery in April of 2014. In Part 3 of My Uterine Fibroids Journey, I share the exciting news about my first pregnancy and plans for a natural cesarean birth, written in July 0f 2015.
It’s not common for women to talk about their uterus or female cycles on a daily basis. I can just imagine your co-worker casually bringing up her heavy bleeding by the water cooler. Just another day at the office! This just doesn’t happen.
Yet, it is common for women to have unpleasant symptoms accompanying their monthly periods. For approximately 30 percent of American women, uterine fibroids are the cause.
I am one of those women.
I’m sharing my uterine fibroid story, because I believe it will empower other women to understand their bodies, their choices for treatment, and to ultimately, feel better! For a long time (over two years now), I only discussed my female health problem with family and close friends. I saw it was my own personal issue, something people probably didn’t want to know about. But I’m attempting to be brave and bold in an effort to help women. A post about fibroids is not something you usually read on a health and food blog like mine. My very proper English grandmother would be horrified! You just don’t share personal things like this. Well, I’m not my grandmother, God bless her.
What Are Fibroids?
Uterine fibroids, also called myomas, are hard masses of tissue that grow inside the uterine cavity, outside the uterus, or in the uterine muscle wall itself. The illustration above shows the different types of fibroids. The good news is that fibroids are not cancerous. The bad news is they can create all sorts of painful symptoms, especially if they grow to gigantic size. Fibroids are more common in African-American women.
Ultimately, no one knows what causes fibroids. They often develop during child-bearing age, but if untreated, start shrinking in menopause. That’s due to the fact that fibroid growth is fueled by female hormones, like estrogen. When estrogen levels drop off in menopause, they stop expanding.
Symptoms of Fibroids
Depending on the location and size, small fibroids may present no problems to women or developing fetuses during pregnancy. When fibroids mature to enormous proportions, especially in the most sensitive areas, then symptoms also increase. Here are common complaints and conditions.
- Heavy & prolonged periods
- Painful intercourse
- Urination frequency
- Digestive problems
- Back pain
I have five of these symptoms!
The most difficult one for me to process emotionally has been infertility. Because one of my fibroids is nestled in my endometrium (the inside lining of the uterus), it’s nearly impossible for a fertilized egg to achieve successful implantation.
“You’re not pregnant?”
No people, unfortunately I can’t get pregnant.
I often wondered why people asked if I was pregnant during the last three years, since I’ve been married. Social faux-pas aside, now I understand. Bloating is a major symptom, and I only looked like I was in my first trimester.
Here is my recent pelvic MRI image. The green circle encompasses the large fibroid mass. The smaller one inside my uterine cavity is more difficult to see. The doctor told me my uterus is twice its normal size. And my poor squished bladder! Yes, that is one of the most interrupting and uncomfortable symptoms, urinary frequency.
Treatment of Fibroids
It’s important to note that uterine fibroids are generally not treated when they are small. Since they are benign, doctors do not want to create potential problems by treating fibroid patients unnecessarily. They are usually monitored by regular pelvic ultrasounds and evaluation of the woman’s symptoms.
When uterine fibroids grow too large, presenting unmanageable symptoms, there are several viable treatment options, from the least invasive to the most invasive.
- Natural herbs – Naturopathic and alternative health doctors that specialize in women’s hormones and fertility can use herbs as a natural treatment to shrink fibroids. Chasteberry tincture, black cohosh, Siberian ginseng, red clover, goldenseal, red raspberry, licorice root, and motherwort are effective treatment for some women. I tried the natural herb route, using a formula called Turska’s, for nine months without success.
- Progesterone IUD – An intrauterine device or IUD that releases progesterone has shown to be effective for women with heavy bleeding. This semi-permanent device, inserted into the uterus by a doctor, does not reduce the size of fibroids; it only reduces symptoms accompanying monthly periods. The IUD is not a favorable choice for women desiring pregnancy, as the IUD is used most often as birth control.
- Uterine Artery Embolization (UAE) or Uterine Fibroid Embolization (UFE) – A newer procedure performed by interventional radiologists is UAE or UFE. A tiny catheter is inserted into the leg artery and threaded through to the uterine artery. Small pellets are injected into each fibroid, cutting off their blood supply and causing them to die and shrink over time. We strongly considered this procedure, since it is less invasive and recovery time is only a few days. However, since we still desire children and research data for pregnancy rates after UAE is unclear at this point, we decided against it. It seems UAE is an excellent choice for women over child-bearing age that want to avoid surgery and keep all their female organs. I highly recommend Dr. Mary Costantino for UAE if you live in the Portland area. We met with her several times and were impressed with her knowledge, experience, and kindness.
- Myomectomy – Myomectomy is the standard care for women desiring pregnancy. Depending on the size and location, the fibroids are removed through laparoscopic or open abdominal surgery, usually by an obstetrician/gynecologist (OBGYN). The recovery time is anywhere from four to eight weeks. Due to the risk of uterine rupture, open myomectomy patients are strongly advised to have C-section deliveries for all subsequent pregnancies. We are currently moving toward this route of treatment for my fibroids, trying to find the best surgeon we can.
- Hysterectomy – Hysterectomy completely removes the uterus and therefore, all the fibroids. Compared to previous decades when open abdominal surgery was required, hysterectomy can now be performed laparoscopically or robotically by an OBGYN. You can also keep your ovaries in tact, so hormone function remains stable. This option seems best for women past child-bearing age or women who do not wish to conceive.
Want to know more about treatment? I discovered this one-hour lecture produced by the University of California Comprehensive Fibroid Center to be very helpful. It has excellent charts and photos detailing the procedures I described above.
If you or someone you know has fibroids, I encourage you to take plenty of time to determine which option fits best into your life circumstances and goals. Discuss all of them with your doctor and your spouse. You’ll make the right choice, whatever it is.
What’s Next for Me?
I never wanted uterine fibroids. I never wanted to be infertile. I desired children in my first year of marriage, but God had different plans. I’ve never had major surgery before, so I feel like this journey is a step of faith.
Even with our concerns, Jim and I have decided to go ahead with myomectomy. I have confidence that God will bring good out of my situation. (Romans 8:28) We are aiming to preserve my uterus for the opportunity of pregnancy, if the Lord wills. Pregnancy is not a guarantee even with surgery, but we are asking for a miracle.
I ask for your kind thoughts and prayers.
For now, I leave you with a video of open abdominal myomectomy in action, the same surgery I will most likely have. I think it’s strangely scary and fascinating all at the same time. It’s amazing what modern medicine can do!
(WARNING! This video is not for the faint of heart or stomach!)