After years of padding herself so she wouldn't bleed on her clothes and dealing with debilitating period pain, Tanika Gray Valbrun launched a campaign to educate others about the toll fibroids can take.
Tanika Gray Valbrun rarely stands up without looking down to make sure she hasn’t bled onto her seat. She checks before leaving staff meetings at CNN, where she works as a news producer. She checks when she steps out of her car. And before she married her husband, she would check repeatedly during dates.
“I’ve had to learn how to pad myself” to keep the bleeding contained, she says. “I know the whole formula—what kind of underwear to wear, what kind of tights, what kind of Spanx. I’ve tried and tested everything. It’s become a way of life.”
For Valbrun, 41, it’s life with uterine fibroids.
Throughout the 25 years Valbrun has lived with the benign tumors, they have caused menstrual bleeding so heavy, she’s become severely anemic at times, requiring emergency blood transfusions. She’s endured excruciating cramps for nearly a third of every month. She’s undergone two surgeries to remove them. And until recently, she gave up on wearing white.
“It’s a simple thing,” she says. “Like, who cares, why not just wear black? But I love clothes, and the fact that I had to sacrifice wearing white for these benign tumors—I wasn’t feeling it.”
Facts about fibroids
After decades of being downplayed and pushed to the sidelines, women’s reproductive health has in recent years become the subject of louder public conversation. Periods are now openly celebrated in books and a board game, hit TV shows, and an Oscar-winning short film. Thanks to vocal celebrities like Lena Dunham and Padma Lakshmi, many chronic pelvic conditions—endometriosis high among them—have seen splashy media coverage.
But fibroids haven’t yet had their big cultural moment, despite a growing chorus of personalities from Sara Bareilles to FKA twigs to several Real Housewives sharing their experiences. Doctors say the condition isn’t on most people’s radars—but they’re hopeful this will change.
“Women need to know what fibroids are and what fibroid symptoms are,” says Elizabeth Stewart, MD, a gynecologic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic who specializes in the condition, which costs the US healthcare system some $34 billion annually. The more education women receive, the more likely they’ll get the support and treatment they need.
Fibroids are extremely prevalent: Roughly 70% of white women and 80% of black women will develop them in their lifetime. In most cases, the growths are innocuous: Less than half of women with fibroids will suffer any symptoms or consequences. But when they do act up, they can become a bloody, bulky barrier to women’s well-being and happiness.
“There is a trauma in having to constantly worry about what’s going to happen when you go out,” says Valbrun. “You can never be carefree.”
Though heavy bleeding is one common symptom of fibroids, not all women who have fibroids experience it. Depending on their size, number, and location in and around a woman’s uterus, fibroids can also cause bloating, pressure on the bladder or bowel that can sometimes affect the organs’ ability to function, and pain during sex. In some cases, they can impact a woman’s ability to become or stay pregnant—but, Dr. Stewart stresses, “many women with fibroids conceive without difficulty and have an uncomplicated pregnancy.”
Historically, the most common treatment for problematic fibroids has been to remove the uterus entirely—fibroids are the leading cause of hysterectomy in this country. But many doctors now offer an expanding list of options, from hormone therapy and sound waves to minimally invasive surgery.
New research suggests a treatment called uterine fibroid embolization, in which a doctor injects small particles into the uterine arteries to block the fibroid blood vessels, causing them to shrink and “die,” may be just as effective as surgery and lead to fewer complications. Read More
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