In my last blog I detailed my hesitation and resistance to my gynaecologist’s suggestion that I have a second diagnostic laparoscopy (keyhole surgery) to look for endometriosis. It feels weird then, almost two months later, to be writing that this week I had that surgery.
My hesitations varied from not wanting to repeat another painful and probably pointless surgery like the one I had in August 2017, to wanting an endometriosis specialist to be the one to go in for a second look, rather than a general gynaecologist. Once I received a date for the operation I was more certain than ever that I was going to be withdrawing my name from the waiting list, but I had an upcoming appointment with a different doctor that I had set as the deadline for my final decision.
This other appointment was a bit of a cock-up – I was supposed to have been referred to a specialist gynaecology clinic in London but wires were crossed and somehow I ended up with a referral to a sexual health clinic in London that specialises in sexual pain. The problem was, the only female sexual pain the clinic deals with was superficial pain, relating to pain that occurs externally or on entry, like vaginismus and vulvodynia. While I have had some run-ins with superficial pain, my most persistent symptom over the last few years has been deep dyspareunia – that’s deep, internal pain during vaginal penetration.
When I got to the appointment I was, as expected, greeted with, ‘why have you been sent here? We don’t deal with deep pain, that’s gynaecology.’ But I was kind of hoping I might be referred to that hospital’s gynaecology department because it’s one of the best. He decided to examine me anyway, and I realised this was going to be something of a new experience when he said, ‘oh we use stirrups a little differently here…’ One bizarre examination later and he agreed with me that superficial pain was not a primary issue but that it was present. He also said I appear to have some pelvic floor dysfunction which doesn’t surprise me at all. Physio is something I’ve been increasingly curious about over recent months.
When it became clear that he wasn’t going to refer me to the hospital’s gynae unit, I just decided to ask, ‘do you think I should have a second laparoscopy?’ He took a sharp inhale and said something along the lines of, ‘I’m sure you get this a lot and are pretty fed up of it, but it sounds like endometriosis to me.’ He was right, I have been getting that a lot, increasingly so. He suggested some urological and gastrointestinal causes too, but then he went on to explain endometriosis to me in a way no one else ever had before. He said, ‘some women will be struggling with infertility, have absolutely no pain and a laparoscopy will find endometriosis in abundance. Other people will have serious, chronic pain and yet when endometriosis is found it will be a really small, localised amount, probably on or very near a nerve.’
This, pardon the pun, really struck a nerve. My symptoms have improved so much since going on the pill that it seemed to me that if I did have endometriosis after all then there couldn’t be very much of it. So I started to focus in on the one symptom that hadn’t changed – deep dyspareunia. I asked around, did a lot of research (I’m particularly grateful for the resources on the Nancy’s Nook Endometriosis Education Facebook page) and discovered that deep dyspareunia is often associated with rectovaginal endometriosis and endometriosis found in the Pouch of Douglas (POD).
‘POD’ struck a chord. Why did I know those letters? I started sifting through my (now finally organised) records of appointments, examinations and scans and discovered that on one of my more troubling scans, where a persistent hemorrhagic cyst (commonly associated with endometriosis) was found, a very small, uneventful comment was written: ‘some free fluid seen in POD.’ The POD, evidently named after some Douglas bloke, is also known as the ‘rectouterine pouch’ or the ‘posterior pouch.’ It’s the seemingly useless ‘cul de sac’ between the uterus and the rectum. Intelligent design, eat your heart out. The more I read about endometriosis-related dyspareunia the more it all seemed to marry up with my symptoms (retroverted uterus, constipation after sex, deep dyspareunia).
It was this discovery, as well as my first debilitating period in a year, that pushed me to say I would have the surgery in April after all. I was pretty steady in this decision, up until a week before where I promptly freaked out. My initial fear was that I going to die and it was all going to be my fault, but most of all, I was crippled by the fear of going through the entire process again to be told there was nothing wrong but to continue to be told that my symptoms sound like endometriosis. It’s an incredibly frustrating cycle. Once I talked myself off of that ledge I was determined to be as prepared as I possibly could be for the surgery. Looking at it now, I think I did a pretty good job.
I had a full sheet of questions and concerns that I wanted to run by my gynaecologist before I let him operate on me, all of which he respectfully and sincerely answered. A few included:
- Please don’t stretch my vagina, as you suggested you might – OK
- Since deep dyspareunia is my most persistent symptom can you please check my POD and look out for rectovaginal endometriosis – it’s unlikely but sure, I would have looked anyway
- Will you open up my old scars or create new ones? A bit of both, personally I prefer going in from the left, so that would mean a new scar
- If you find endometriosis how will you treat it? Burn it
- Is excision surgery not an option? I hear that it’s better. If it’s significant then I would excise it, yes.
Reassured by his answers and our rapport, I was readied for surgery and sat reading Chamber of Secrets until they came and got me.
A couple of hours later, exactly 20 months after my first disheartening surgery, my gynaecologist swaggered into recovery (where I was crying and swearing because my drugged-up self had come to the conclusion they hadn’t found anything) to tell me, ‘I found endometriosis in your Pouch of Douglas, it’s not in your head!’
It’s only been a few days and I’m still processing. It was a really tiny amount of endometriosis, but as I’ve been reminded time and time again, the severity of endometriosis does not correlate to pain. Giving myself endometriosis imposter syndrome at this point will help nothing.
I can’t help but wonder what role my own advocacy and research played in finally get an, albeit tentative, answer. Would he have double-checked my POD if I hadn’t specifically done the research and asked him to? Would painful sex ever have been the symptom my doctors focussed on if I hadn’t forced them to? A widely touted statistic about endometriosis is that on average it takes 7.5 years to get a diagnosis, but that’s actually contested between 7 and 12 years. I’ve got here, where I’m not sure I have a diagnosis exactly but where I have had endometriosis discovered and treated, in three and a half years. But reaching this point has been a hell of a lot of hard work, physically and emotionally. I’ve been misdiagnosed with vaginismus, spent months attending psychosexual counselling, been placed on a pill that’s wreaked havoc with my skin and mood, taken anti-depressants for pain management, stopped running, stopped having sex, stopped socialising like a normal twenty-whatever-year-old. I’ve gained a lot too, knowledge, friends, writing gigs, a novel, job opportunities, a post-grad pathway I didn’t expect, a blog – but I am constantly curious about what the last three years might have looked like if my pain had been believed earlier, taken seriously sooner and treated promptly – by myself and by others.
It’s not yet clear whether this is the beginning or the end of this particular experience. I have a million questions for my post-op appointment and I won’t know if the surgery has actually improved anything for months. But to have had the hysteria label lifted is hugely gratifying. Honestly, I feel vindicated because in my head the pain was never in my head. If that makes any sense at all.