January 26 Day 324: Women’s Health, Amirite?

Warning: This post contains TMI. Read at your own risk.

I’ve been contemplating this post for a long time. But today two things happened that gave me strength to put it out there:

  • A friend posted about her hot flashes pointing to the failure of healthcare to address our real experiences.
  • I spent the morning in day surgery addressing another issue, wondering whether I should even mention it.

Why do I think that we don’t openly talk women’s health issues? As a professional woman, I have been afraid of being perceived as “less than” and must prove that I am not the “weaker sex.” So uniquely female issues are definitely taboo, even to other professional women.

Want to have a family? What advice do we hear from the well- meaning? Wait until after tenure. And if you can, plan the birth for the summer so you don’t have to take maternity leave.

Confession: I had my two boys in August (three years and three days apart). Tenure was acquired but my husband and I were on the job market while I was pregnant with my second. I was upfront with potential employers and promised I would be ready to hit the ground running for the Fall semester. We did not get the right job offers. The next year I was on the market with a five month old in tow. At the start of the interview season, I would request time in the schedule to pump. A minimal disruption visible only to the scheduler (unless my breast pads leaked and my discomfort took center stage.) Whenever feasible, I would bring my son and meet my mother at the interview location. My mom was amazing, she would drive (occasionally fly) to mind her grandson and meet-up for feedings as they were scheduled. Exhaustion of the interview season set in for everyone—my husband and I spent no more than 3 nights together in our house for the month of February that year. For the final interview I laid it all on the line, “I’d love to come but I need to bring my young son and to find help minding him during the interviews.” That was one of the best visits ever. They really came through for me and would have been fantastic colleagues (but my husband and I needed jobs together.) One a positive note, I did take maternity leave with both sons in the subsequent fall semesters. It allowed me to join “Mommy and Me” playgroups that became my sounding board for sore nipples, breast pumps, Mom bods, and everything a parent worries about throughout the development of their children. Support systems are so important. Moms and sisters are great but someone going through the same thing at the same time is priceless.

Is that pain real? How many times have you experienced an ache or twinge wondering if the symptom was serious, only to grit your teeth and persevere. When a tooth hurts, you go to the dentist and it gets fixed. Why are so many women living with pain that is not being taken seriously?

A good friend dropped that she was having “elective surgery.” It came out that she was choosing to live without the constant pain of uterine fibroids. How can a hysterectomy be classified as “elective surgery”?

Pain is relative—on a scale of one to ten in fact. I think during the height of contractions in childbirth, I gave my pain level as a 9. After all, you never know what other experiences are out there. If you start too high, everything becomes a 10. My toes curl at around a 7. So when I experienced pain on my right side (that I evaluated at a 5), my doctor didn’t think it warranted immediate attention. I was likely passing a gall stone. Just persevere. Take Tylenol for pain. After months of intermittent pain, my toes started to curl and my husband forced me to take action. Definitely gall stones. Lots of them. Leading to pancreatitis and a week long hospitalization. Could that have been avoided with earlier treatment? Maybe? Probably? I needed to better advocate for myself.

What to expect from menopause? Here’s what I have learned—-everybody’s body is different. There is no roadmap to understanding because it is not well enough understood. Health changes that fall into the symptoms of perimenopause or menopause get discounted. Just persevere. Take Tylenol for pain. They are a temporary state and will eventually subside.

I’ve had irregular cycles almost my whole life—when do they become a symptom? They stopped all together for 9 months (not the year cited by medical sources). Then they started again more irregular than ever. So perimenopause, right?

I’ve been gaining weight around the middle—menopause or COVID or both?

Night sweats? Yes. Hot flashes? No. Unless night sweats are hot flashes under the covers. Then yes but only at night. And the list goes on…

What is the question asked at every woman’s medical visit? What is the first day of your last menses? I answered with a date and a qualification—but they have been more irregular than normal lately. I just thought it was a part of the gentle aging process. My doctor was the one who became concerned. A FSH blood test confirmed suspicions that I was in fact post-menopausal and the bleeding was not normal.

I consider myself lucky. I passed through menopause without realizing it. And for the past three months I have been working with my medical team to find an explanation for the bleeding. The waiting and the unknown are infuriating. After biopsies, an ultrasound, a specialist, and today, a hysteroscopy together with a dilation & curettage (otherwise known as a D&C)—we are possibly done. A polyp was found and removed, and the thickened endometrium was scraped off. The bleeding should stop and chances are good that the histology will come back benign. I am confident that any result can be dealt with.

I’m not looking for sympathy or prayers. There are others I care about dealing with far greater challenges—like breast cancer and cervical cancer—who deserve them more. I hope that by sharing my story we can begin to normalize these discussions amongst friends, family, colleagues, and the medical profession.

Published by Jenny Quinn

Mathematician. Mother. Wife. Leader. I am a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington Tacoma. Mother of Anson and Zachary. Wife to Mark. President of the Mathematical Association of America.

12 thoughts on “January 26 Day 324: Women’s Health, Amirite?

  1. I had a complete hysterectomy when I was 39. Fibroids were making me bleed heavily and I was severely anemic. My doctor said, “you can’t just keep this up for the next decade.” They took out the ovaries while there were in there. Fine by me; no worries about ovarian cancer.

    But the first ultrasound of my uterus was ordered a full year before this. (Same doctor who later said, “you can’t keep this up for the next decade.”) The ultrasound tech said, “they will probably recommend a hysterectomy.” My doctor never called to follow up or report results. The “rule of thumb” used to be “no news is good news.” So I let it go. The doctor’s office just let it fall through the cracks. I didn’t advocate by following up. (Now I find out when test results are expected and call to find out.).

    The following year, when the doctor said, “oops” about the ultrasound of the year before and we scheduled the surgery. The surgeon said, “this is likely benign, but in a few cases it’s a very aggressive kind of cancer, so we want to schedule the surgery as soon as possible.” Yes, you can wait three weeks until Winter break. No, you can’t wait until summer.

    Fortunately, the fibroids were benign and all went well. But it could have been bad.


  2. I recommend Dr. Christiane Northrup’s Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. I encountered her message in the ’90’s on a PBS special. She is very frank about how to talk and how to take care of ourselves.

    Furthermore, I recommend that you discuss Hormone Replacement Therapy with your gynecologist to treat the hot flashes and night sweats. If you are working full-time, you cannot afford the broken sleep patterns that emerge with menopause. I use a patch.


  3. I don’t know if I would have it any easier having started family planning sooner – but after years of infertility, countless IVF cycles, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, thousands of injections, miscarriages and surgeries, antidepressants, clinics all over the country, genetic and immune system issues, appointments between classes… I care very little about my tenure 😦 I am worn out by trying to do my job the best I can, all the health issues that I left to deal with by myself. Do you think anybody at work knows anything about my struggles? No, because women health (fertility, contraception, all kind of hormonal disbalances, dealing with menopause and premature menopause etc) is perceived as luxury – not covered by insurance, no time off to take care of it. It is hard and sad. It is very isolating. I am so grateful for our son, but the road has been very hard


  4. I badly injured my ankle and leg in December 2018. I fell while hiking, ruptured a ligament in my ankle, which caused a broken fibula (it’s called a Maisonneuve fracture). Our first stop after getting back to the car was to drive to the fire station. The firefighters there told me that I hadn’t broken anything, and that I should just go home and rest for a few days. I told them that I was in extreme pain, but they didn’t believe me. They said that if I had really broken a bone, I would be in more pain. They said that I would look “green” with the queasiness that can come with high pain. I think that because I was staying calm, they just didn’t think that it could be too bad.

    (Next paragraph has a slightly gross detail that you might want to skip)

    Even though they told me to go home, I told my husband to drive me to the urgent care. I knew that something was badly wrong with my foot. After waiting there for four hours, all the while in excruciating pain, I was told, “Nothing’s broken, it’s just a bad sprain.” Then the doctor happened to squeeze my leg, and (gross detail alert) he and I both felt the bone move. I was sent back for more x-rays, at which point they finally diagnosed the broken bone.

    From there, I was given a cast and crutches and told to just stay off the leg. But they had said the words “Maisonneuve fracture”, which I googled and found often resulted from a torn ligament. I kept asking for an MRI. After more than a week, I got my MRI, and of course, I had torn the ligaments in my ankle. At this point, I was scheduled for surgery. The surgeon looked at my MRI and at my injury, and SCOLDED me for waiting so long to get it diagnosed. I was like, “Dude, I’ve been begging people to take me seriously.” I ended up having to have surgery on my ankle, was non-weight-bearing on my right leg for over 13 weeks, and had extensive physical therapy to heal.

    At every step, I had to fight and push to make people take me seriously. It was exhausting and demoralizing. At one point, I decided that I needed a wheelchair, because getting around campus (it’s a sprawling and hilly campus) was just too hard on crutches. When we were at the wheelchair store, the store owner told me that he had also torn an ankle ligament once. He said it was the most painful thing he’d ever experienced. I guess I should have screamed and cried and raised a ruckus, instead of trying to hold back tears and telling people, “I’m at a 9 out of 10 on the pain scale.” People did not believe me because I was too calm.

    Liked by 1 person

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