A woman has told how her doctor blamed her agonising stomach ache on ‘period pains’ – when she was actually suffering from endometriosis.
But since being diagnosed nine years ago with the illness, where cells from the uterus grow elsewhere in the body, Anna Cooper has already undergone 12 operations.
And every day she takes slow-release morphine, or liquid morphine when things are particularly bad.
By speaking out, Anna, from Newbridge, North Wales, hopes to shine a light on her experience and campaign for change to help others in her situation.
For Anna it was an issue that started when she was 11 years old but one that took seven years to be diagnosed.
She said: “It was my 11th birthday when I started my period and my mum hadn’t prepared me for it; I didn’t know what was going on. I struggled with really painful, really heavy, erratic periods. It wouldn’t be like a five or seven-day cycle – I’d be bleeding for like two months at a time.
“I’d be back and forth to the doctors and a lot of the time they’d say, ‘It’s growing pains, you’re growing up, it’s just part of being a woman.’ I was told so many times, especially in school and things like that, it’s just your period, you need to get on with it.
“I missed so much school because of hospital appointments and being generally unwell. It really isolates you as a teenager. I had to grow up very quickly because no-one else seemed to understand.”
At 15, Anna was referred to a paediatrician after finding a swelling under her left rib.
While consultants put it down to a cyst on her ovary after exploratory surgery the following year, it was not until emergency surgery to remove Anna’s appendix revealed the true problem when they discovered endometriosis cells surrounding her appendix.
She said: “He took me into surgery and I was riddled with it. He had to take me out of surgery and take me back in two weeks later. It took him five hours to remove it all.”
In the weeks before her 18th birthday, Anna was diagnosed with endometriosis. While it was an important step, diagnosis is only half the solution for a condition for which there is currently no cure.
Describing that time, Anna said: “I remember my 18th birthday party. I was at home, it was a house party and I had bandages all over my stomach because I’d had surgery.
“Everyone was just having the time of their life because they were 18 and carefree and I just had so much more to worry about.
“I couldn’t go to uni because I didn’t want to live away from home because of the pain. I was in hospital every week having various check-ups and investigations.”
Soon after her diagnosis, Anna had endometriosis removed from her ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder and her bowel.
Before changing to specialists in Liverpool, she was also presented with two terrifying options at only 18 years old: Either get pregnant or have a hysterectomy.
Anna said: “I was 18 when they gave me that [option]. If I’d have listened to that I wouldn’t have had my daughter.”
Despite her struggles with her health, Anna is determined to keep positive. After meeting her now husband at 19 years old – she now has a four-year-old daughter Grace – she discovered she was pregnant two weeks before she was due to start IVF treatment.
She has also managed to keep her job as a senior dispenser at Boots by dropping down to work one day a week, allowing her to manage hospital appointments and life as a mum.
But with a chronic illness such as Anna’s there are still issues every day that she must overcome – including last year when she had a permanent ileostomy bag fitted.
In the near future, Anna will have a total hysterectomy.
Anna said: “It’s constantly affecting every aspect of my life and it all stems from my period which is why I feel so strongly about it. I’m in pain every day, some days are better than others. I’ve had 12 surgeries for it now, one which has left me with a bag.
“Because we’d had one [child] we count ourselves as incredibly lucky. But it’s not easy.
When people say, ‘At least you’ve got one child,’ it doesn’t make it any easier to digest because everyone has an idea in their head.”
She is now campaigning for menstrual wellbeing to become a mandatory part of the curriculum in Welsh schools to teach pupils not only what periods are but signs to look out for if something isn’t right.
Anna said: “I don’t want a young girl to be in my position but then I’ve found there are much worse positions to be in as well.
“There are girls out there who have taken seven, eight, nine years to be diagnosed who feel they haven’t been listened to or heard just because they think it’s just periods.
“My consultant who diagnosed me said that a painful period that has you in bed crippled over in agony, that is not normal. But a lot of girls, if that’s all they’ve ever known, think that’s normal.”
This article originally appeared on The Sun and was reproduced here with permission