If there’s one thing that can be said about fibroid tumors, it’s this: They are very common in women. Estimates show that about three-quarters of American women of child-bearing age develop these tumors, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Friends of the National Library of Medicine.
Many of us have these tumors and don’t even realize it. However, to some of us the tumors make themselves known, and when they do, they can be a real pain.
I had to deal with fibroid tumors and they certainly made life challenging, let me tell you.
What are fibroid tumors?
“Leiomyomata (fibroids) are benign smooth muscle tumors of the uterus present in as many as 77% of reproductive age women,” says Dr. Cynthia C. Morton, Ph.D. Morton is Director of Cytogenetics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Found in the smooth muscle tissue of the uterus, and also comprised of this tissue, the tumors also consist of the proteins proteoglycan and fibronectin, the NIH notes.
Fibroids are classified by their location in the uterus, and they can occur in several places, according to the Center for Uterine Fibroids of Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Types of fibroids and where they occur:
- Subserosal. These occur in the outer tissue layers of the uterus. Sometimes, the Center reports, they are pedunculated-connected by a thin stalk to the uterus-or they may be sessile-meaning broad-based and without a stalk. These are connected directly to uterine tissue.
- Intramural. Occurring deeper within the thick, muscular walls of the uterus (the myometrium), these tumors can distort the uterine cavity and cause the uterus to be misshapen.
- Submucous fibroids are located just under the endometrium, which is also called the uterine mucosa, in the lining of the uterine cavity. Like subserosal fibroids, these may be pedunculated or sessile.
Morton, who corresponded with me via email, notes that there’s evidence to suggest that genes may well play a role in who gets these tumors.
“Black women are affected with fibroids three times more often than white women, even after adjusting for factors such as socioeconomic status and access to health care,” she says. “There is no definitive reason for this occurrence, but it is likely influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Our team is actively recruiting more black women to take part in our research studies to understand better the underlying reason for this difference.”
By analyzing the genomes of thousands of white women both with and without fibroids, the team led, by Dr. Morton, made a pretty amazing discovery. They were able to study the genetic variants of all of the women involved and to determine which of these variants made a woman more likely to develop fibroids. In so doing, they found one likely culprit: A gene known as the Fatty Acid Synthase (FASN) gene.
“The identification of FASN as a potential risk allele in white women with fibroids is a promising discovery and is currently being investigated further,” Morton says. “We hope to identify additional risk alleles in black women and other populations.”
Alongside ethnicity, there are other risk factors involved, including:
- Family history. Women who have relatives dealing with these tumors are also likelier to develop them, Dr. Morton notes.
- There are indications that environmental factors, including diet and caffeine intake may also play a role.
- Obesity is also linked to uterine fibroids-the risk of obese women developing fibroids is 2-3 times greater than in women of average weight, she says.
There’s definitely a shared family history in my case. My sister also had to deal with fibroids . In our case, the tumors were stubborn and persistent and over time we both had to undergo hysterectomies.
Even though they are benign, fibroids can create some nasty symptoms, according to MedlinePlus. These can include:
- Heavy, painful periods and pain and bleeding between periods.
- A feeling of “fullness” in the lower abdomen.
- Urinating often.
- Pain during sex.
- Lower back pain.
- Reproductive problems–infertility, multiple miscarriages, or early labor.
In my case, I found that there’s nothing that compares to fibroid tumors to make me feel like I swallowed an elephant. While I’m not the definition of thin, my abdomen became huge. I knew I wasn’t pregnant because I was having very heavy bleeding at my time of the month. Then there were the cramps which were almost disabling and it seemed as if my bladder had shrunk to the size of a marble. I was in the bathroom more often than out of it.
I was in a terrible spot because I was homeless–even though I was working. I had no insurance.
In pain and desperation, I went to a low-cost clinic near where I camped in the Pacific Northwest. My doctor took one look at my abdomen and performed a manual pelvic exam. Unsurprisingly, she said my uterus felt enlarged. She suggested that fibroid tumors may well be causing my problems.
I also had other underlying health problems that weren’t related to the tumors and because of this, I was put on temporary disability immediately. This came as such a relief. The situation I was in–being homeless, working, and being ill was exhausting me.
I was very lucky, however.
My doctor gave me a referral to a wonderful and kind-hearted gynecologist who put me through the next steps: Ultrasound tests and an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imagery). Going through an MRI is a strange, almost surreal experience. You lie on a table while this circular machine whirls overhead and around you. It’s kind of like a weird carnival ride. The tests confirmed what my doctor thought.
There were three very large tumors perched in my uterus. One was so large that my doctor told me it was the size of an eighth-month pregnancy and it stretched all the way up to my ribcage. These tumors had progressed to their gigantic size because I’d been without insurance for so long and my gynecologist said the only real option was a hysterectomy.
Maybe I should have been nervous about such major surgery, but I was grateful because I knew I would no longer be saddled with heavy bleeding and severe cramps. I wouldn’t have to use the bathroom every three minutes or take massive amounts of painkillers.
Whenever I make decisions, I rarely question myself. I didn’t in this case because I knew I was doing the right thing. I was in surgery for two hours and for a day or so afterward I felt like I’d been socked in the stomach with a 2×4, but that was only for a brief time after years of debilitating pain.
I’d made the right move and I haven’t regretted it. Not one bit.