This is the weekly Amplify newsletter, where you can be inspired and challenged by the voices, opinions and insights of women at The Globe and Mail, and our contributor community. This week’s newsletter was written by Amber Mac, a TV host, entrepreneur, author and speaker.
For almost two and a half years, and possibly longer, I’ve suffered from anemia (which means my body doesn’t produce enough healthy red blood cells) due to fibroids – benign tumours that can grow in or outside of the uterus. When I first got my diagnosis, I felt quite lonely. Like other fitness enthusiasts, I used to log my running workouts – now I was tracking my hemoglobin levels. It wasn’t until I started sharing my story online that I realized I wasn’t suffering alone. Fibroids were yet another women’s health topic too taboo to talk about, and many of us have been suffering in silence.
In fact, approximately 70 per cent of all women by the age of 50 will be affected by fibroids, an often-misunderstood disease. Among Black women, the numbers are even higher. Between 20 and 50 per cent of women with fibroids experience symptoms that cause pain and other health issues.
Fibroids are often compared to the size of fruit, ranging from an apple seed to a watermelon and everything in between (before you have to ask, my largest is the size of a small orange). The symptoms can include heavy periods, abdominal pain, frequent urination and even infertility. When the bleeding is bad it can lead to anemia, which is a condition that precludes your red blood cells from carrying adequate levels of oxygen to your body’s tissues. As someone with anemia who previously ran a marathon and worked out consistently at the gym, I’m now celebrating the days that I can walk up a flight of stairs without stopping to catch my breath.
There is a culture of silence surrounding women’s health, and in order to combat it, we have to normalize talking about the unique conditions that affect our bodies. For starters, there has always been a stigma around discussing your period, let alone trying to explain to your boss that you can’t leave your house because you’re bleeding so badly that no tampon or pad can stop the flow.
Women of all ages will continue to face barriers in health care if we don’t commit to taking the first step in squashing the cruel assumption that we must suffer in silence.
When I first publicly shared that I suffer from fibroids and anemia, my inbox filled with heartbreaking stories from other women with this all-too-common condition. In some cases, women shared that they dismissed their symptoms at first, often waiting years to see a gynecologist. Others shared stories of ongoing quality-of-life disruptions. In my case, I’ve been getting monthly iron infusions at the hospital for the last year and a half, which has temporarily helped to increase my hemoglobin. I’ve also been on hormone therapy to try to stop the bleeding altogether. This wasn’t a long-term solution and, after a cancelled surgery in December, I’m relieved to have undergone surgery earlier this week.
The link between heavy bleeding and anemia can increase your risk for needing a blood transfusion. This is top of mind for me, unfortunately. A blood transfusion is a short-term solution, but treats the anemia immediately.
The COVID-19 pandemic rocked Canadian health care in unimaginable ways and our blood supply was not exempt. Canadian Blood Services (CBS) reported that the number of people who donate regularly has decreased significantly during the pandemic. They continue to maintain inventory benchmarks, but it is not lost on me – a potential patient – that they are still being met by the smallest donor base in a decade. It’s simply not sustainable.
I am a huge believer that we hold the keys to our individual success, whether it’s in our professional or personal lives. CBS shares this sentiment and recently challenged people to create powerful, lifesaving habits that could make a difference to those in need of blood. Their “Give 3 in 2023″ challenge is not one size fits all – you determine what works best for you by using CBS’s list of suggested donation commitments, whether it be donating blood, volunteering or sharing news of the challenge on social media. I may not be able to donate blood currently, but it won’t stop me from making my 3 in 2023 commitment; some day, in the months ahead, I look forward to donating blood regularly.
I’ve been daydreaming about the moment I can stop tracking my hemoglobin levels and finally run up the stairs. Since I don’t have that perfect ending right now, the best I can do is chip away at the stigma that exists and fight for a better path forward for those of us suffering from this common, challenging and debilitating condition. Let’s start having these uncomfortable conversations, and together we will make important advancements in women’s health.
What else we’re thinking about:
On Monday, I had a total hysterectomy (but kept my ovaries). This was not my first choice. I was always hoping to do something less invasive, but as time went on, this surgery became my best choice for long-term health. I just want to mention this as one final thought, something to remind other women that this road is filled with twists and turns. Most importantly, after some struggling and searching, I found an amazing team of doctors at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital who helped me through each of these stages with kindness, knowledge and compassion.
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