Launching her career in broadcast media as a freshly minted graduate from the University of Maryland, Paula attributed her first experience with the symptoms of uterine fibroids — heavy and unpredictable menstrual bleeding — with stress from her new job. And for two years, she just dealt with it, making sure she always had plenty of heavy-duty pads and a change of clothes.
When the bleeding got out of control and prevented her from being as active as she liked, Paula mentioned this to her stepmother, an ultrasound technician in an OB-GYN office, who encouraged Paula to get an appointment right away.
“I hadn’t seen a doctor since I was 15, and that was my pediatrician. So now I’m 22 and very anxious.” But the gynecologist was very respectful and after the exam he prescribed birth control pills to help lighten and regulate her periods. “He offered no explanation for why I had heavy bleeding. He said some women just have heavy periods. The idea that my periods would be normal was music to my ears!”
For four years, the birth control pills, together with over-the-counter iron tablets to treat her anemia, worked; no more heavy periods.
Paula moved up the professional ladder and relocated from Washington D.C. to Atlanta, where her periods became heavy again. “I chalked it up to the stress of moving.”
Uterine Fibroids Diagnosed
Paula left her doctor’s office armed with information and reassurance. “I realize now that this is very rare. Most women get a diagnosis and the doctor must move on to the next patient, so there’s very little time for patient education or questions and answers.”
Pregnancy and Fibroids
Fast forward and to Paula at 29 years of age. She’s happily married and pregnant. “Being pregnant with fibroids caused so much difficulty! The extra estrogen in my body stimulated growth in the fibroids. I was four months pregnant and I started having contractions. It was a Friday evening around 7 pm when this horrendous pain hit. I was immediately put on bed rest and I never came back to work.”
At 28 weeks the contractions started again and they prepared for a preemie baby. “The fibroids had grown so big that the baby was running out of room!” Paula stayed in the hospital for four days trying to keep her baby, and the Olympics were going on right there in downtown Atlanta. “It was a crazy time.”
The baby was delivered at 38 weeks, “She was perfect!”
Eleven months later Paula had a myomectomy. Her six-week recovery wasn’t nearly as trying as her bed rest. “I had a new baby and worked part time. My Mom came to town to help us. My recovery went very smoothly.”
Three and a half years later, Paula had a baby boy. “This was a totally different pregnancy. I was working and chasing my daughter around. I had much more freedom this time.”
Three and a half years after her son’s birth, Paula was managing a busy life with her husband, small children, and a demanding full-time career. One morning as soon as she woke up, she experienced a big gush of blood. She then went on to have a period that lasted 23 days. Oddly, she said, she didn’t link this to fibroids. “Denial! I thought I had taken care of my fibroids.”
Her OB-GYN said not all of the fibroids had been removed during the myomectomy and recommended doing Uterine Fibroid Embolization (UFE), a new treatment at the time, which was less invasive and had a one-week recovery time.
Some of Paula’s friends have had very different experiences with UFEs and myomectomies. “I credit my quick recovery time to being fit and not overweight. If the uterus has extra weight on it, the pressure will make it harder to heal. My advice to women getting a procedure to treat fibroids: lose the weight. Get strong. It will make your healing go much more quickly.”
One day, Paula was attending a meeting in a conference room. “At the end of a meeting I got up and saw that the whole chair was saturated in blood. I was mortified, yet managed to act casual and sit back down. I pretended I needed to gather my things. After the room cleared, I asked my assistant to contact the custodian about the chair.”
Paula covered up (she always has a long dark sweater on hand) and went to the nearest stores to buy new clothes and a stockpile of pads. “I went on with the rest of my day but I did call my doctor to schedule the UFE as soon as possible. The procedure worked beautifully. They only treated the problematic fibroids, and left the ones that weren’t growing.”
Some of those fibroids caused trouble four years later. Paula had a second UFE and is on the pill (oral contraceptive pills) to stabilize her periods.
Today, Paula’s children are 15 and 19 years, healthy and strong. “I want women with uterine fibroids to know that having children is possible. There are many treatment options today that we didn’t have even ten years ago. Don’t be afraid to take care of your fibroids. You deserve a good quality of life without the interruption of fibroids.”
COMPARE-UF Helps Women
“The beauty of the COMPARE-UF registry is that it’s not a clinical trial. There are no procedures. There are no medications. This is a registry that monitors what treatment choices women with fibroids are making. As an African American woman, I share because this is a public service. It can only help.”
She added, “By sharing our stories, we can help each other now, and help our daughters, cousins, nieces, and all women in the future. This registry will give us the data we need (the data I didn’t have for all those years) that will help us understand more about the treatment options so we can help women deal with their fibroids.”
“I think of the women out there suffering, those who can’t get to the bathroom when they need to, like teachers and cashiers. I know the fear of having a public accident. The fear and anxiety is huge. It makes us grumpy and snappy. It affects all our relationships!”
This year, Paula will celebrate her 49th birthday. “To all you women out there who only wear black pants and skirts, who have to buy maxi pad supplies at Sam’s Club, who struggle with having to make countless trips to the bathroom, I say, you aren’t alone! Check out the White Dress Project – I’m sure if you have this problem you would never consider wearing a white dress or pants!”
Paula encourages women not to wait to get treatment. “There is hope – you can regain your health and your freedom. Be persistent, ask lots of questions, and consider registering with COMPARE-UF when you decide to get a procedure.”
Paula says as she approaches menopause her symptoms have all but disappeared. “I know most women dread menopause, but I’m saying, ‘Hey Menopause! Glad to see you!’”