We Need to Talk About Menstruation

Our friend Sara Radin from New York opens up about her own menstruation issues and highlights the importance of discussing taboo subjects.

“You could’ve lost your ovary,” whispered my step dad as I regained consciousness following an outpatient laparoscopic procedure. Looking around the hospital recovery room, I was confused yet too nauseous and delusional to ask any questions. “You got really lucky,” he said.

For years, I’ve struggled with wildly uncomfortable periods: painful cramps, heavy bleeding, nausea, exhaustion, depression and more. Doesn’t sound too unusual from the typical period symptoms, right? At my annual OBGYN appointments, I’d tell my doctor of the growing discomfort I had. She wasn’t fazed. Every year she suggested birth control and prescription naproxen. I tried both but didn’t find either solved my problems. I didn’t like injecting unnatural hormones into my body and the pain killers didn’t do much.

In recent years, I had noticed the discomfort was getting worse. It was unbearable. Every month, I felt down, dizzy and weak for up to a week. It started to affect my ability to get out of bed and make it to work, to get things done and go about my normal routine. I was miserable and I didn’t know how to solve it. I assumed nothing could be done, and I also felt ashamed every time I complained. Every woman goes through this, so why should my situation be any different? I thought.

For years, I’ve struggled with wildly uncomfortable periods: painful cramps, heavy bleeding, nausea, exhaustion, depression and more. Doesn’t sound too unusual from the typical period symptoms, right?

Sara Radin

I assumed this was normal and I should suck it up as best I could until this past March when I went in for my annual OBGYN appointment. Again my doctor suggested the same two solutions to my problems. However, this time as she was examining my pelvis she noticed a lump. “It could just be stool,” she said, “but you should go for a sonogram just to be sure.”

Quickly I made an appointment to get an ultrasound at a radiology centre she recommended. A few weeks later I found myself in a less than comfortable situation: my legs were spread out wide as an ultrasound specialist inserted a large rod into my vagina. I did everything I could to hold back tears as she fished around for the potential lump. The machine repeatedly beeped as she zoomed in on what looked like an oval shaped mass. “Is something there?” I asked barely able to speak. I was shaking and crying and felt awkward and ashamed all at once. “I can’t tell you that. You’ll have to wait to hear from your doctor,” she said. I watched in fear as she measured the large dark circle on the screen. I left the building and cried hysterically on the street corner.

Days later my gynaecologist called to tell me she believed I had a pedunculated fibroid: in other words, a benign tumour was hanging off my uterus, and I also had a cyst in my right ovary that was rated “complex”. I’m no stranger to cysts and fibroids – I have a small fibroid in my right breast that requires I see a breast specialist and get an exam annually to make sure it’s not growing. I asked if I should be concerned or if anything needed to be done this time. She said no that the fibroid wasn’t something to worry much about, but I should go back for another ultrasound to check on the cyst.

Photography by Bridget Badore

Weeks later I was back at the radiology centre, holding back tears as an ultrasound technician again fished around my pelvic area. Except for this time she couldn’t find my right ovary. She said it was hiding behind the mass, making it impossible for her to see the ovary or cyst. After a half hour, she brought in reinforcements: two different technicians tried and failed to find my right ovary. So they brought in the radiologist, but she couldn’t find it either. After nearly three hours of having my lady parts poked and prodded by four different people, I was back to crying on the street corner, feeling confused and completely violated.

At some point between the two tests, flow had come to town again. This time, my PMS symptoms were so bad I had to stay home from work one day. Once my period arrived, I felt lightheaded and I wanted to vomit yet I got dressed work and made my way to work. That morning I was waiting for the subway when I started to brown out. My vision went blurry, and I couldn’t stand up any longer. I made it over to the wall and crouched down on the floor. I was shivering and sweating, and my cramps were pulsating so much that my entire body was shaking. I ended up spending the day in the emergency room for a vasovagal attack, which is when your heart rate drops and your blood pressure gets low, so you faint. There was a large chance it was brought on by my period. What was going on with my body?

Finally, after tracking my doctor down for a week, she called to give me the results of the second test: “The radiologist isn’t sure what she saw and is now unsure of what she even saw the first time.” I was enraged since I was already two thousand dollars in debt from all of the medical bills. My options were to get another ultrasound with a different radiologist or an MRI. Frustrated with the care I had received, I decided it was time to get another opinion.

I made an appointment with a highly-rated doctor who was able to squeeze me in a few weeks later due to my situation. She spent an hour with me confirming that my period problems and uterine fibroid were most likely related and that I should have it removed as soon as possible through laparoscopic surgery. The procedure would allow her to see inside my pelvic region so she could check for other issues like polycystic ovary syndrome or endometriosis. Compared to my last doctor, the new one was kind and empathetic to my case. I felt heard, so I decided to take a leap of faith and trust her. It would be my first time having surgery, and although I was anxious, I felt hopeful that things could get better and that I might be relieved of this monthly nightmarish hell.

We scheduled the surgery for a month later. Though she unexpectedly and very luckily called me a few days later to say she had a cancellation and could squeeze me in sooner. Not only that, she returned my calls within 24 hours and spent ample time with me on the phone listening to and addressing my concerns.

Back in the recovery room post-surgery, it was 2 hours later than I was expected to finish. My parents explained that when the doctors opened me up, the doctors found that the tumour was larger than they had expected (10 cm wide) and it was actually encasing my right ovary, so it took longer to remove. Furthermore, the mass wasn’t situated in front of my ovary; it was encasing it completely meaning a softball sized mass had been growing around and blocking my ovary for likely five years. What?! The doctor said I could’ve had an ovarian torsion, meaning the mass could’ve twisted at any time and I would’ve lost my ovary.

It’s difficult to feel valid when you’re raised in a culture that sees periods as a gross taboo. When in reality, they’re a natural, absolutely necessary, beautiful and yet sometimes uncomfortable part of life.

Sara Radin

Luckily, the procedure went well, I should be totally fine and hopefully, my period symptoms will improve. Though the recovery wasn’t easy: I was nauseous, depressed, had extreme fatigue and could barely move for days. I couldn’t get out bed on my own or shower by myself. I was scared and disgusted to look down at my scarred, swollen, purple body. When I finally left the house four days later, I felt immense pain every time the car jolted.

Now, two weeks later, I’m healing and finally feeling somewhere around 85% myself. I came out of that experience with three battle-wounds and a badly bruised body, a renewed sense of gratitude, and a desire to speak out about my personal experience: unfortunately there’s a lot of stigma and shame surrounding women’s health and menstruation that keeps ladies like me from speaking up, feeling heard, and seeking adequate medical care.

It’s difficult to feel valid when you’re raised in a culture that sees periods as a gross taboo. When in reality, they’re a natural, absolutely necessary, beautiful and yet sometimes uncomfortable part of life. It’s even harder to feel valued when services like Planned Parenthood are seen by some as threats to society, instead of sanctuaries where women of all backgrounds can get affordable access to critical health care.

Luckily today, more companies are coming forward such as Lunette Cup and Lola Tampons, helping to open up the dialogue about periods while creating innovative products that better serve women’s needs, while some countries like Italy are even considering menstrual leave. Hopefully, more governments and corporations will follow in their footsteps.

But even more than that, many low-income and homeless women don’t have access to period products in the states and abroad. In the United States, over 50,000 women live on the streets and have limited access to pads and tampons. Non-profits like LA’s Femproject and Portland’s PERIOD. are helping to solve this by providing products and support to those in need. Yet, we’re still lacking adequate education around menstruation and other women’s health issues that could help young people better understand their health and wellbeing.

Perhaps the largest step to move the needle is to foster spaces and dialogues where women feel comfortable being open about these struggles. It’s time to create a culture that shows compassion and understanding for women whose bodies are naturally responding to fluctuating hormones. Personally, I’m tired of hiding my period products in my purse and pretending I’m okay when I feel like I’m dying inside. I’m also lucky I live in New York where tampons are no longer taxed.

Today, we have a moral obligation to women and anyone else who menstruates to start supportive and empathetic conversations around menstruation. While it could save a lot of women the agony I went through; I was incredibly lucky to have the time and money to find a doctor willing to listen and help me — unfortunately, this isn’t the case for everyone.