If you know at least ten people with a uterus, odds are you also know someone with endometriosis. Endometriosis is perhaps the most common disease you’ve never heard of. Affecting at least ten percent of the female-bodied population, endometriosis is defined as the growth of tissue similar to that of the lining of the uterus on other organs, most commonly the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and intestines. These lesions bleed every month during the menstrual period, and because the blood has nowhere to go, it accumulates inside the body, causing internal bleeding and immense amounts of pain.
March is national endometriosis awareness month, but you probably didn’t know that. For a disease that’s so common that it’s almost impossible for you not to know someone affected, endometriosis gets virtually no attention in the media and popular culture. Why is it that America turns pink in October for breast cancer awareness and red in February for heart disease, but not yellow in March for endometriosis?
Endometriosis receives so little attention because we are not ready to talk about periods. In American culture, menstruation is shameful, dirty, and disgusting. When I first started my period, I was told to keep it to myself, like I had a secret every month that no one could know about. So, when I began to experience cramps so terrible I was paralyzed with pain, I didn’t tell anyone because I thought I had to keep my secret. I would walk into the school nurse’s office doubled over but told her it was just a headache and it would feel better after lying down. I thought it was normal to lose sleep from period pain, and that all my friends had cramps so terrible they threw up, too. Everyone took days off from school, dance class, or canceled weekend plans even after maxing out on Advil and Tylenol, right? Nobody talked about their period, so how was I supposed to know that most people actually can get out of bed when they have theirs? I accepted my pain as part of being a woman and just something I had to grin and bear.
My experience is not uncommon, and too many people suffer in silence. Women are far too often told they are exaggerating their symptoms, or have a low pain tolerance. Because endometriosis affects multiple body organs, women are misdiagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome or pelvic floor dysfunction and sent away without a second thought. The average wait time between when a woman first seeks medical attention to when she is diagnosed with endometriosis is ten years. Not only do women live with unnecessary pain for extended periods of time, but when left undiagnosed and untreated, endometriosis can lead to irreversible organ damage and infertility. The only way to definitively diagnose and treat endometriosis is through laparoscopic surgery, which many women with endometriosis undergo multiple times throughout their lives to preserve fertility and stave off the pain.
It is time to get over our fear of periods and give endometriosis and women’s health the attention it deserves, not only from the general public but within the medical community as well. There should be more effective treatments, more options for pain management, less invasive and more efficient means of diagnosis. Menstruation is a natural biological process, and it is not “normal” to be sidelined by period pain every month. Going forward, we must learn not to devalue women for their pain, so that one-day women’s health will not be taboo and fewer women will be led to believe that their suffering is normal.