By Mia Klitsas - Founder, Moxie.
Earlier today I read an Instagram post by our pals @sharethedignityaustralia that has encouraged me to write this piece and open-up about something that I never have (publicly) before.
Share the Dignity’s post candidly talks about the personal experience of it’s amazing founder, Rochelle, and her struggles with ovarian cysts and endometriosis. She’s having an op today to help end years and years of suffering (here’s to a speedy recovery, Rochelle!!).
Unlike Rochelle and thankfully for me, I didn’t suffer for years with horrifically painful periods, fertility issues and unsuccessful surgeries – but I did have a terrifying experience in my late teens – and, I didn’t realise until years later how common this type of experience can be for women. It’s also not something we discuss nearly enough – reproductive, menstrual and sexual health issues plague so many of us and for too long, we’ve been made to feel like there is shame associated with experiencing or talking about them. Which of course, there isn’t. It’s whack to think otherwise. Our bodies can do some truly incredible but also some undesirable things and much of it is beyond our control. There’s nothing to be ashamed about, as I myself have learned, Moxettes. Educated women are empowered women! You never know how your story might help someone else. And so, here is mine.
I was 15 when I got my first period and whilst they were irregular, they were pretty uneventful – I had some discomfort and cramping in the first few days (standard) and they only lasted for about four in total, so compared to what some of my friends were enduring, my monthly visitor was pretty friendly, considering. I think it’s worth adding in here that I was relatively uneducated about my body and particularly about reproductive/menstrual/sexual health – in hindsight, I honestly think I didn’t even feel the need to concern myself with it – which is mad now that I reflect on it, but I was young and really only cared about parties and boys and being with my friends – periods were a slight inconvenience that I just dealt with when they came, and that was that.
I never for a moment thought that the acne, PMS, the often incredibly irregular periods and the debilitating migraines I experienced throughout my teens were linked to anything other than puberty. I went about those years probably like many others did, simply managing pain and symptoms as they appeared, but never delving deeper into what was possibly going on inside my body.
I was 19 and out watching a movie with my boyfriend one night when my insides suddenly turned on me. We had been out for dinner prior and so initially I just thought that I’d eaten too much mac ‘n’ cheese, but it soon felt more sinister than that. It resembled period pain, but BAD. REALLY BAD gut churning, low-near-the-pubes type period pain. Every scenario ran through my head: “am I getting my period? For the second time this month? Do I have food poisoning? Am I PREGNANT?”
I knew something was NQR immediately and so I asked my boyfriend to take me home – it was 11pm and Mum was still awake when I arrived. “You’re really pale, are you ok?” she asks, concerned. The sharp, stabbing pains in my abdomen were becoming unbearable and I was starting to bloat – rapidly. Suddenly, I looked six months pregnant (more thoughts: “Oh my God I am pregnant and I’ve been pregnant this whole time and I didn’t know it and I’m about to give birth and oh my GOD my parents are going to kill me”. I now realise, and probably even knew it at the time, how insane this thought process was, but I couldn’t rationalise any other possibility). Before long I was in screams, couldn’t breathe and had a belly the size of a small watermelon - Mum decided it was time she take me to the hospital.
Long story short… I ended up in the ER where I was promptly given three injections for what doctors thought was food poisoning. As I lay on my back, my stomach continued to expand (apparently the screams got louder and I was in and out of consciousness from the pain) they realised that it wasn’t food poisoning. “You’ll have to bring her back for an x-ray at 9am when the radiology department opens”, the doctors say to Mum. “What will I do with her until then?! She’s SCREAMING!”. And I really was. I had to be carried back to the car and then carried out at the other end. I couldn’t stand. All I really remember was coming in and out of consciousness, finding it very difficult to breathe and the sharp stabbing pains in my stomach.
Mum knew we couldn’t wait until 9am to go back to the hospital and so she called a family friend who had a radiology clinic up the road from where we lived. He agreed to meet us there immediately and give me an ultra-sound to help figure out what was going on. My pain had miraculously started to subside by this point and whilst I felt more ‘present’ (less faint), my stomach was HUGE - particularly for a (not pregnant) 19-year-old who probably weighed no more than 57kg. “Ummm, you have an ovarian cyst. About 12.5cm long. And it’s ruptured”, he says.
Ovarian cyst? What’s that? 12.5cm? Is that big? What do you mean it’s “ruptured”? How? What’s it doing now? How did this happen? Am I going to die?!!
Basically, ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs that live in the ovaries and apparently most women who have periods will get them. Usually they don’t cause any issues (i.e. they don’t burst!) and will just disappear on their own – and, most often, women don’t even know they have them. In my case, it turns out that I had polycystic ovaries (which explained the irregular periods, acne, etc) and women who have polycystic ovaries are also more likely to have issues associated with ovarian cysts. For those who know that they are prone to them, or discover any early symptoms, will usually get checked and will have any suspect cysts surgically removed. I didn’t know what they were, let alone that I had one the size of a mini football growing very rapidly inside me!
The worst was over, apparently, but I had a little road ahead of me in terms of recovery. The ‘fluid’ inside the burst cyst had made its way into my lungs (hence why I had trouble breathing) and would take some time to be absorbed by or excreted out of the body. I was really lucky I didn’t have to have surgery. I was in bed for about a week and whilst my experience certainly isn’t one of the worst, I could’ve done without it. My biggest fear was getting another - which is highly likely – and so I was promptly put on the pill to regulate my periods and stop any further cysts from forming (as the pill essentially inhibits ovulation); although, this spurred a raft of other issues in the years to come (that too is a story for another day!).
Some ovarian cysts can be cancerous, can become infected, or may even cause the ovary to twist on itself, so if you suspect that something’s not right in there or if your periods are a little (or a lot) ‘off’, PLEASE GET CHECKED ASAP!! It’s imperative we understand our bodies and know what’s going on with them. Find a trusted doctor or health professional to help guide you through and equally as important, don’t be afraid to talk to your mum/sister/friends about their experiences – the more we normalise the conversation about periods and anything else associated with having ovaries/a uterus/a vagina and all the rest of it, the more equipped we’ll be. Knowledge is power, Moxettes, and we should never be afraid to seek it and use it for the greater good.
(PS – In case you were wondering… yes, apparently 12.5cm is big for an ovarian cyst. The average size is 3cm. So yep, I thought I was going to die. Didn’t though! Winning!).