From the moment her periods started, every month was a pain for Gabby Miles*. Throughout her teens and 20s, she was searching for a solution.
My menstrual cycle was problematic from the day it began, when I was 14. My periods were very heavy and long and most months I was so ill I’d be sent home from school. I’d go a really strange colour and fainted regularly. It was horrible: I felt as if the whole world knew I was having my period.
I knew my cycle wasn’t normal. My younger sister didn’t have the same problems. My mum tells me she experienced the same symptoms at my age and having children cured her. Despite her reassurance, even as a young teenager, I wondered whether I’d be able to conceive. Something just didn’t feel right.
When I went away to college, I decided to go on the pill because I was desperate for some relief, and I’d heard that it would help. And it did: it reduced the bleeding time and the pain, and enabled me to get a good degree. But once I graduated and started my first job I stopped taking the pill. I didn’t have a boyfriend so I didn’t need it for contraception and I knew the pill can increase your risk of cancer.
Within a few months the headaches, stomach ache and flooding were back. It was exhausting and demoralising. Despite doubling up with tampons and pads, I’d regularly wake up with my sheets soaked with blood.
Sometimes I was so ill I had to be sent home from work by taxi, which I found extremely embarrassing. This went on for years. It was normal for me.
PMT was a nightmareMy cycle also affected me emotionally. I had really bad PMT [pre-menstrual tension]. Looking back I know that’s what it was, but at the time I didn’t know why I felt so dreadful. I just thought I was a moody cow and I’m sure everyone else did as well. At times I was irrational and felt I wanted to kill people, over really stupid little things. I must have been hell to live with!
I used to go to bed with a hot-water bottle, dosed up with paracetamol and ibuprofen. All I wanted to do was to lie down and crawl into a hole. I didn’t want anyone to speak to me; I just wanted to go to sleep and get rid of the pain. I tried all kinds of alternative remedies, including evening primrose oil and St John’s wort, but without success.
When I met Raffi, I went back on the pill for a few years until we got married when I was 27. After the honeymoon, as we both wanted children, I thought I might as well come off the pill and see what happened. Unfortunately, after a year I wasn’t pregnant and my periods and PMT were as bad as ever.
I was desperate to start a familyI was getting really worried about my inability to conceive, so eventually I went to see my GP. I was referred to a consultant gynaecologist, who did some blood tests, which indicated what I’d suspected: that I wasn’t ovulating regularly.
The gynaecologist said: “We can either make you pregnant or we can make your periods better, but we can’t do both simultaneously.” I wanted to start a family, so that was what they focused on.
After an investigative procedure called a laparoscopy, I was diagnosed with endometriosis [a condition where the type of cells that line the uterus appear in other areas of the abdomen and can cause pain and scarring].
Even though I was told it shouldn’t affect my ability to conceive, the doctor prescribed Clomid (a fertility drug) to encourage my body to ovulate. Unfortunately, after several months I still wasn’t pregnant so the consultant referred me to the reproductive medicine unit at the Liverpool Women’s hospital.
Somewhere along the line my notes were lost and the appointment never materialised. I couldn’t wait any longer, so I decided to investigate my fertility privately.
I went to my local private hospital, where the medical team said I was a perfect candidate for IVF [in vitro fertilisation]. Raffi and I talked it over and decided to pay for treatment.
The first attempt resulted in over-stimulation of my ovaries, so instead of eggs I produced empty sacs. In the second attempt I wasn’t given enough drugs to produce anything, so they called a halt to that cycle of treatment.
After that, I switched consultant to Mr Charles Kingsland of the Liverpool Women’s hospital. He did another laparoscopy, to ‘spring clean’ my ovaries in readiness for more IVF.
Pregnant at lastFinally, on our third attempt at IVF, I conceived triplets. Pregnancy was a blissful respite from the pain and exhaustion that accompanied my monthly period. Unfortunately, during my pregnancy I developed pre-eclampsia, a potentially serious condition that can be more likely to develop in women having multiple pregnancies, especially if they’re over 30.
Because of the risk to me and the babies, our triplets had to be delivered by caesarean section at 32.5 weeks. Their arrival wasn’t straightforward. The babies were small and had to spend time in special care; and it was touch and go for all four of us for 48 hours after the birth.
Olivia, Rosie and Scott were adorable, and I was thrilled to be a mum, but for the first 18 months of their lives I was permanently knackered. Having three babies to look after really took it out of me. I remember standing at the foot of the stairs, looking up and thinking: I don’t have the energy to climb them.
I knew the way I was feeling wasn’t right. It wasn’t normal to feel this exhausted. I felt like one of those cartoon figures you see dragging along a ball and chain. I could walk – just about – but I felt as if I were held back by a dead weight.
My periods came back worse than everSince giving birth, my cycle had also got shorter. Each month I’d bleed for three weeks, of which the start and the end were quite light, but the middle bit was hideous. It was also really affecting my relationship with Raffi. I was ratty, short-tempered and no fun to be with. Sex was very, very painful so I was reluctant even to attempt intimacy. My libido was non-existent.
I felt completely below par all the time. I had no energy. I’m a teacher and my job can be very stressful and demanding. I could just about function and get through the working day but I didn’t do it particularly well. When opportunities for promotion came up, I never dared to apply. I didn’t think I’d be able to cope with anything extra. I never even had the energy to have fun.
In despair, I went to see my GP, who did some blood tests. These revealed I had an underactive thyroid and I was prescribed thyroxine. It helped, but I still felt lousy, so even though I knew I was unlikely to need contraception, I tried going on the pill to see whether it would alleviate my symptoms. Despite trying several types, there was always a problem: headaches, discharge, PMT, so eventually I stopped taking it again.
I’d had enough of feeling lousyEventually, in 2010 at the age of 46, I decided enough was enough. I’d spent the triplets’ entire childhood enduring horrible periods and having such a hideous time. They’d see me lying on the sofa and say: “What’s the matter Mummy?” I’d say, “I’ve got a tummy ache.”
I hated not having the energy to do things with them: to be a fun mum. I wanted to regain some quality of life and be normal for a bit while I was still young enough to enjoy it.
The prospect of the menopause appearing at some time during the next decade was daunting, too. With my luck, its onset would involve yet another hormonal whammy. When two of my friends had a hysterectomy [removal of reproductive organs] because of endometriosis, it occurred to me that the operation might help me, too.
My cycle was still relentlessly bad, so I began to read up on it. I also went to my GP to find out whether my symptoms were worse because I was approaching the menopause.
The practice nurse did a blood test to see whether I was perimenopausal. As I was so run-down, she also did another blood test for CA125 (a marker for ovarian cancer), which indicated the possibility of pre-cancerous cells. My GP decided to take action and fast-tracked me for a consultant appointment at the local hospital. I was sent for a scan, which showed up a cyst on my ovaries. They also did another laparoscopy, but couldn’t access the cyst because my organs were stuck together.
Given the possible presence of pre-cancerous cells, along with the horrendous pain and other problems I was having, it was clear that a hysterectomy was the answer. Finally, someone had suggested something that was hopefully going to solve my problems. I couldn’t wait!
*Some names and identifying details have been changed.
Read about Gabby’s hysterectomy and what happened next.
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