Nothing raises the profile of a particular illness or health issue as effectively as a celebrity’s public revelation that they are struggling with it. Think Angelina Jolie and genetic testing for the probability of developing breast cancer, Michael Douglas and throat cancer, or Jamie-Lynn Sigler and multiple sclerosis.
Consciousness of endometriosis has recently been ratcheted up by several decibels with near-simultaneous announcements by two celebrities who say they are battling the gynecological disorder: 21-year-old singer/songwriter Halsey, and Lena Dunham, the creator, senior writer, and star of HBO’s “Girls.”
New Jersey native Halsey, whose real name is Ashley Nicolette Frangipane, signed her first recording contract with Astralwerk in 2014. She released her debut EP titled “Room 93” in October of that year, followed by “Badlands,” her initial studio album, which she described as an “angry feminist record,” in August 2015.
Halsey made her health status announcement in a Jan. 28 Twitter post:
Lena Dunham took to Facebook, informing her fans and followers that she will be taking some time off from working on “Girls,” which starts its fourth season on HBO on Feb. 21, to get some help in addressing the painful disorder, and she will not be granting the slate of media interviews that would normally be associated with a new season launch of her show.
“I just wanted to let you know that, while I am so excited for Girls to return on Feb. 21, I won’t be out and about doing press for the new season,” Dunham posted. “As many of you know I have endometriosis, [and] am currently going through a rough patch with the illness, and my body (along with my amazing doctors) let me know, in no uncertain terms, that it’s time to rest. That’s a hard thing to do, but I’m trying.”
Dunham actually first went public with her endometriosis struggles, the symptoms of which date back to when she was a young teen, last November in a post on her Lenny Letter website blog, in which she describes in considerable detail what it’s been like for her living with and working around the disease.
It is estimated by the Endometriosis Foundation of America that the disorder, which afflicts more then 5 million women in the United States, costs society some $110 billion annually. An idiopathic (of unknown cause) and often painful condition, endometriosis occurs when cells of the tissue that normally form the lining of the uterus — the endometrium — migrate to grow in a location outside of the uterus, most commonly in other pelvic organs: ovaries, vagina, cervix, bladder, bowels, rectum, or the tissue lining the pelvis. Rarely, endometriosis implants can manifest outside the pelvis, such as on the liver, in old surgery scars, and in extremely rare instances in or around the lungs or brain.
These growths, variously referred to as “colonies” or “implants,” are not cancerous but can cause pain, heavy bleeding (sometimes between periods), and are associated with infertility, although while the disorder is more common in women who are infertile than in fertile women, endometriosis is not itself thought to necessarily cause infertility. Reportedly, some 30 to 40 percent of endometriosis patients do experience infertility as a result of the condition, which is considered one of the top three causes of infertility and hysterectomy, according to The Endometriosis Foundation. Pregnancy can moderate or alleviate some endometriosis symptoms, with menopause usually putting an end to them.
Each month, a woman’s ovaries produce hormones that signal the uterine cell lining to swell and become thicker until these cells are shed through the vagina along with blood and tissue during the woman’s monthly menstrual period.
Like normal uterine cells, endometriosis growths react to ovarian hormones — growing and bleeding during menstrual periods and over time, implants may add more tissue and blood. The buildup is what leads to pain and other unpleasant symptoms. When endometriosis occurs in the ovaries, cysts called endometriomas may develop, causing surrounding tissue to become irritated, and eventually to develop scar tissue and adhesions.
While the cause of endometriosis is unknown, some researchers think it is an autoimmune disorder. It also tends to run in families, so an element of heritability may be in play.
Endometriosis risk factors include having a mother or sister who have it, early onset of menses, never having had children, frequent periods or menstruation lasting seven or more days, and having a closed hymen, which blocks the flow of menstrual blood during the period.
Pelvic pain is the primary endometriosis symptom, with pain in the lower abdomen before and during periods, cramping for a week or two before and during menses, pain during or following sexual intercourse, painful bowel movements, and pelvic or low back pain. Pain intensity varies between patients, with some women who have a lot of tissue in their pelvis experiencing no pain at all, while some women with milder cases of the disease experiencing severe pain.
Treatments for endometriosis may include exercise and relaxation techniques; painkillers — OTC or prescription; hormone therapy; and surgery in cases of severe pain that does not respond to less invasive treatments, with removal of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and both ovaries (a hysterectomy) considered by some therapists to be the best chance for a cure.
For more information about and support in coping with endometriosis, visit: The Endometriosis Society at endometriosisassn.org; The Endometriosis Foundation of America at www.endofound.org; The World Endometriosis Society (WES) at endometriosis.ca; or Endometriosis UK at www.endometriosis-uk.org.