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Lena Dunham gives a public face to endometriosis

Actress Lena Dunham attends the Lena Dunham And Planned Parenthood Host Sex, Politics & Film Cocktail Reception - Park City 2016 at The Spur on in January.

Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Lena Dunham is well known for baring all when it comes to her political opinions, discriminatory attitudes toward women and, yes, her unclothed body on the TV show Girls.

Now Dunham is earning accolades for disclosing this week that she has to pull out of public appearances for the upcoming season of her show due to complications from endometriosis.

She has mentioned her diagnosis in the past. But in an Instagram post Monday, Dunham touched on the challenges of the disease, how common it is, and how so many women suffer without the option of taking time off to rest. Many people have taken to social media to commend Dunham for giving a public face to endometriosis, which can be debilitating and have serious, lifelong consequences. Here's what you need to know about this disease:

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What it is

Endometriosis refers to the disorder in which tissue that is normally found lining the uterus grows elsewhere in the body, such as the abdomen, bowel, bladder, ovaries and the fallopian tubes. The tissue continues to act like uterine tissue, meaning it builds up and sheds each month. But much like uterine tissue, it has nowhere to go, which can cause cysts, inflammation, adhesions and scar tissue to develop.

How common it is

About one in 10 women has endometriosis. According to a 2014 article in the Journal of Medicine and Life, the disease affects as many as 15 per cent of women, making it perhaps the most common benign gynecological condition (benign referring to the fact endometriosis is a growth that isn't cancerous).

Up to half of all women dealing with infertility have endometriosis, although the American Society for Reproductive Medicine notes that a clear cause-and-effect relationship has not been established and the impact on fertility varies based on the severity of the disease. But treatments, like surgery to remove the endometriosis, and assisted reproductive technology, can help women conceive.

Dr. Catherine Allaire, medical director of the BC Women's Centre for Pelvic Pain & Endometriosis, said that some women with endometriosis experience no symptoms other than infertility. She added that surgery isn't necessary to start treating the disease if doctors suspect a patient has it.

Ongoing issues

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Despite its prevalence, many women still face an uphill battle getting an accurate diagnosis and treatment. Symptoms include painful periods, gastrointestinal problems, pelvic pain and painful intercourse, which are also symptoms of other disorders. There is no blood test for the disease and often a definitive diagnosis is only possible after laparoscopy, or when a viewing scope is inserted through an abdominal incision to look at the internal organs.

According to the website, the symptoms of the disease can vary from woman to woman depending on where the tissue is growing outside of the uterus, so it can be a challenge to figure out which treatment option will work best. Earlier diagnosis and treatment can help prevent scarring and damage that may occur as a result of the disease.

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