“Extensive and severe” are not the words you want to hear when a doctor gives you a new diagnosis. Frankly, I personally feel that I have reached my quota for diagnoses, and that if anyone wants to give me a new one, they should have to trade in an existing one. Pick a card, any card… Sigh. So, I’ve been having as bunch of tests over the past few months to check up on my fertility. I’ve already been diagnosed with mild endometriosis, and donor assisted conception can be wearying for both families involved so we wanted to do all the checks we could and get any treatments needed before wasting a lot of time trying to conceive if there was a problem. So far a lot of the news has been good; I have healthy ovaries and lots of eggs. A few weeks ago Rose and I received the news that I have severe adenomyosis. It’s a bit hard to process, and I find it harder to share about physical illness and disability than I do about my mental health, so I’ve sat on it for awhile.
On the one hand, having a name for it makes no difference to what I’ve already been living with. On the other there’s a huge weight of sadness and fear. Perversely, there’s also a sense of vindication. I was frequently ignored and had my terrible symptoms downplayed by medical people and others, especially as a young woman. It was devastating and made me feel profoundly alone and overwhelmed.
A crash course in the conditions, not for the super squeamish. The womb has three layers, the outer one is muscle, then there’s a layer of tissue, and lastly the inner layer which is called the endometrium. This is the part that grows and swells up ready for a pregnancy, and then sheds and bleeds every month as a period. A healthy endometrium is essential for a fertilised egg to implant (that means link up to the womb via the umbilical cord) and be nourished and grow. In endometriosis, (endo) little patches of endometrium grow elsewhere in the body. Most commonly they are elsewhere in the pelvis, such as growing on the ovaries, intestines, and other organs. More rarely they are elsewhere in the body such as the lungs. It is very rare, but possible for men to have endo.
Nobody knows for sure how or why these patches occur. They’re like weeds, growing all over the place where they shouldn’t be. The big issue is that they try to function like the endometrium does, every month they swell up and then shed blood. This blood doesn’t drain away the way a period does, so there can be issues with pain and infection, and sometimes they can chew into places such as ligaments or patches of nerve cells. They can cause fibroids and adherence where tissues glue together, such as sticking the ovaries to the pelvic wall, which can cause worse pain. If the affected tissues are delicate areas such as the fallopian tubes, endo can compromise or destroy fertility. It’s also common for the extra blood loss to cause iron deficiencies. Endo is usually diagnosed through a laparoscopy, a surgery where the gut is checked out with cameras through small holes in the skin around the belly.
Treatments for endo are more usually about managing it rather than curing it. There’s a range of options from surgical removal, using hormones such as the Pill to prevent periods and therefore stifle the endo growth, dietary changes and so on. Some people find some approaches way more effective for them than others.
Adenomyosis is similar, in that again it’s the endometrium cells growing where they shouldn’t. With adeno, the endometrium invades the tissues of the womb itself. Pockets of endometrium cells swell and bleed into the tissue. In severe cases, all the womb is affected. It’s swollen and heavy with the pockets of extra cells, there are issues with pain, excessive bleeding, and cramping of the muscle layer. In some cases the adeno prevents the clamping down on blood vessels that supply the womb, causing chronic pain and bleeding problems. With severe blood loss, the body struggles to replenish the supply of red blood cells and severe anaemia can result. There’s only currently two ways to diagnose adeno: one is performing a hysterectomy, that is, taking out the womb, and then examining it. This is obviously not appropriate for young people or those hoping to have a child. The other is through an MRI scan, which is not quite as conclusive, but gives a lot more information than other scans such as ultrasound.
It’s only been fairly recently that adeno had started to be diagnosed, so not very much is known about it and sources of information are conflicting. It may increase failure rates of implanting embryos, miscarriage, preterm labour and other fertility challenges. Treatments are very limited, in some cases surgical removal, or hormone blocking to shrink the growth – sadly this only has a very temporary effect. Three months of hormone blocking will provide about three months of adeno-free cycles.
Both endo and adeno usually respond really well to pregnancy, and it used to be common for daft doctors to suggest pregnancy as a management tool. This is partly how the hormones help -they mimic pregnancy in the body and when taken continuously (without sugar pill breaks for ‘periods’) they suppress the growth of each. Both endo and adeno can be odd in that how severe they are and how bad the symptoms are don’t always line up. Some people with severe endo have few or no symptoms while others have mild endo but suffer terribly. The location of the endo may have something to do with this – for example endo that chews into areas with a lot of nerves may cause a lot more pain than endo in areas without many nerves. Some people have awful periods and problems with pain and no clear cause can be found, which can make figuring out a treatment incredibly difficult.
So, we have no way of knowing how the adeno may impact our baby plans. I’m having a lot of trouble with experiences of severe depression when we make even minor changes to my dose of hormone to manage these conditions, so at this stage we’re avoiding the hormone blocking treatment because I think my head might fall off or spontaneously combust. We’re tailoring my dose down carefully, hopefully in a couple of weeks I’ll be completely off the pill and ready for my first cycle! I’m taking iron supplements already as the severe bleeding leaves me badly anaemic, which is not good for me and particularly not good for a developing baby. We’ve also made the call that my efforts to be restored to a ‘natural’ cycle at some point are pointless – when I’m not trying to get pregnant I’ll be using hormones to keep these in check. The longer I’m off the pill the worse the symptoms get, so we’re hoping for a 6 month try at pregnancy then we’ll re-evaluate. We’ll be tracking iron levels pretty closely and if I’m lucky I’ll get pregnant quickly before the adeno makes it impossible to work. If I’m very lucky I’ll also have a good pregnancy! Lots of unknowns, but a little more information than we had before. And certainly all worth it for the chance at being a Mum.