I recognize that my situation with endometriosis is somewhat unique, but I hope that my story is a witness to how empowering NFP can be in the women’s health field. Through tracking their cycles and seeking help from qualified medical professionals, so many women have found the root cause of their problems and have been able to get treatment for recurrent miscarriages, thyroid problems, polycystic ovarian syndrome, infertility, and so much more. In a world where women’s pain is often dismissed or minimized, our own self-knowledge is so important.
Almost every woman knows the drill: whichever health issue we bring to our primary care doctors, birth control seems to be the magic solution. Acne? PMS or PMDD? Irregular cycles? Painful periods? I was offered the pill for each of these issues, but it’s incredibly frustrating that every women’s health issue is only considered solvable by suppressing fertility. In NFP circles, people rave about NaPro doctors as an alternative to the pill and a way to get to the root of health problems, so I sought out Dr. Kimberly Barrows, a NaPro doctor in Grand Rapids. Seeing her required me to learn the Creighton Method of Natural Family Planning four years ago, when I was noticing severe dips in my depression related to my cycle. Creighton involves meticulously tracking biological markers that can indicate various hormone imbalances and point to underlying health conditions. Through analyzing these markers, we were able to discover progesterone issues linked to my depressive episodes, and the issue was fairly easy to treat. I later learned the Marquette method for actual family planning purposes, but the Creighton method was instrumental to understanding and addressing my health.
However, even good doctors in the Catholic world have their limits, and this is where it was so important that I was empowered by the knowledge of my body I gained through NFP. I had always had cycle-related pain, but as it worsened in severity and I began to notice other issues such as irregular bleeding and GI problems, I started to suspect that there was something more happening. Dr. Barrows ordered a few ultrasounds over the course of a couple years, but they never showed anything abnormal. It wasn’t until my sister, Mariele, experienced such severe pain that she decided to get a laparoscopy, and her doctor found endometriosis, that I truly considered that I could also have it too. My amazing PA, Maria Thelen at CCMC, affirmed that possibility and encouraged me to seek a diagnosis.
Endometriosis is a disease in which tissue similar to the endometrium grows outside the uterus, which can cause pain, infertility, and organ dysfunction due to inflammation, invasion into structures in the body, and scar tissue. 1/10 women have endometriosis, which means many of you may have or know someone with this condition. The thing is, endo is only truly diagnosable by laparoscopic surgery, and although it is common, it is one of the most misunderstood, mistreated, and under-researched diseases. A large majority of doctors still think it can be diagnosed through ultrasound or MRI, that it is treatable through hormonal therapies (even though studies have shown that only 17% of women find relief from this treatment), that ablation is the preferred method of tissue removal (even though it has a 50-80% recurrence rate), or that hysterectomy is a cure (removing one’s uterus does not address endometriosis growing on the bladder, bowels, or multiple other organs where it is commonly found). Because of these misconceptions, women have an average of a 10-15 year delay in diagnosis and effective treatment.
On top of that, women’s pain is dismissed over and over again, so we end up minimizing it to ourselves. “Well, I’ve never thrown up or fainted from period pain, so I can’t have endo,” is a line I consistently told myself. Doctors told me repeatedly that some of my symptoms were just due to stress, but all my efforts at stress management failed to eliminate those symptoms. Multiple ultrasounds showed nothing abnormal; they even missed the endo growing on both my ovaries. However, because I’d been using NFP and tracking my cycles for years, I was armed with a meticulous record of irregularities that I could pair with common endo symptoms. When even my NaPro doctor reached the limits of her expertise, I was able to take the knowledge I’d learned from my time with her to seek an endometriosis expert.
There are many self-proclaimed endometriosis experts, but the best are highly skilled and experienced in excision surgery, where the endometriosis is cut away from the organs. There is less than a 19% chance of recurrence with excision by an expert. However, there are so few endometriosis excision specialists that I had to travel 4.5 hours to Columbus, Ohio to see a surgeon with proven success and excellent patient reviews. Who would’ve thought there could be good things in Ohio!? My surgeon discovered and excised stage 3 (out of 4) endometriosis from several of my pelvic organs. Although the recovery was initially slow and painful, the travel and pain were worth it to know my surgeon was someone who would find and remove all appearances of the disease skillfully.
This whole experience has turned me into a determined endometriosis education advocate, so I’ll end by recommending a few resources: The Endometriosis Foundation of Houston, Nancy’s Nook Endometriosis Education, and Endo What are all excellent websites with corresponding Facebook pages. I also want to encourage anyone who is suffering from women’s health problems to know that there are resources and doctors out there who are willing to listen to you. We don’t have to keep saying yes to substandard care.
Thank you so much for letting me share my story with you.