'Doctors told me it was highly unusual I got pregnant six times with endometriosis'
Angela Patton experienced chronic pain most of her life until being diagnosed with stage 4 endometriosis, yet she still went on to have six healthy children
Angela Patton had her first child when she was just 18-years-old. The Donegal woman, now 39, went on to have five more (in as many years) with her husband and childhood sweetheart, Michael. And while having six children by the age of 23 is a feat in itself, the fact that Angela has suffered from chronic endometriosis all her adult life makes it even more astonishing.
"After my eldest daughter (Nicole) was born, I suffered with excruciating stomach cramps," says Angela. "The doctor told me that I probably had a tilted womb and, because I was so young, I just took this information and tried to get on with living my life.
"So although I was in extreme pain most of the time, I just put up with it and went on to get pregnant for a second time with my son Ryan."
Endometriosis occurs when tissue similar to the lining of the uterus (endometrium) is found outside the uterus or womb. This tissue (called endometriosis) behaves like the lining of the womb and bleeds every month when the woman has a period.
The condition causes painful periods and pelvic pain, and can lead to infertility.
In constant pain while running around after two children, Angela, who works in insurance, sought advice from various experts. But because she had conceived twice, the notion that she could have had endometriosis seemed impossible.
"Over the years I visited doctors on many different occasions and some thought I was suffering from IBS, while others said it was pelvic inflammatory disease," she says.
"By this point I had four more children (Tommy, Shaun and twins Michelle and Emma) and the pain got worse after each one was born.
"At times it was so bad that I literally felt like I was being stabbed with a knife and no one seemed to be taking me seriously. I couldn't sit or lie down as this is when the pain was worse and, during the night, Michael would have to help me into a hot bath as I couldn't sleep from the pain - it was horrendous."
Angela's symptoms had all the hallmarks of endometriosis and when she was 23 years of age, she was finally diagnosed with the condition.
"Having gone through so much pain for years, I was eventually seen by a consultant who said my symptoms had all the signs of endometriosis," she says.
"He sent me for a laparoscopy [keyhole surgery] and it was confirmed that I had a very aggressive stage 4 form of the condition.
"It is highly unusual for a woman to be able to get pregnant so easily while having endometriosis. The doctors were very surprised, but put it down to the fact that I was so young," Angela says. "I was advised to have a hysterectomy, which I agreed to as I thought that would be the end of my pain forever - but unfortunately that wasn't the case."
Angela has had many complications over the years as a result of her condition and, despite treatment, still suffers from debilitating pain, but remains positive, and says women today are in a much better place than she was a decade ago.
Professor Mary Wingfield, clinical director of the Merrion Fertility Clinic in Dublin, agrees: "Thankfully, doctors are much more aware of the condition now and treatment is instituted sooner."
Prof. Wingfield, who is also a consultant obstetrician gynaecologist at the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, advises women who have severe period pain to see their GP straight away.
"Of course, it is always difficult for women to know whether their period pain is normal or not but, generally, if it is bad enough to interfere with working or attending college or school, then endometriosis should be considered."
According to Prof. Wingfield, if the endometriosis is behind the womb it can cause pain with intercourse. "If it is over the bladder it can cause pain during urination and if it is close to the bowel it can cause pain with bowel motions. These symptoms typically occur around the time of a period."
She says a diagnosis gives women a wide range of treatment options. These include surgery, medicines, the pill and alternative medicine. "While it is a difficult condition, it is very possible to find good treatment. Fertility [issues] only affect one in three but, even then, there are excellent options; early diagnosis and treatment is key."
Angela still suffers with endometriosis as it wasn't eradicated completely, but says she has learned to live with it. "I don't want to have any more surgery and would rather not be dependent on painkillers, so I just get on with things as best as I can."
Prof. Wingfield adds that the condition often affects fertility and can run in families.
"It is estimated that one third of women with endometriosis have fertility issues; however, many don't and endometriosis has been found in women who have several children," she says.
"We know that very bad endometriosis can cause adhesions or scarring within the pelvis and this damages the ovaries, making it difficult for an ovulated egg to find its way into the fallopian tube.
"In milder forms, the endometriosis lesions cause inflammation or a reaction in the pelvis and toxins are produced which can affect sperm, eggs or embryos."
What is endometriosis?
• Endometriosis is a gynaecological condition which causes painful periods, pelvic pain and can lead to infertility.
• It affects up to 100,000 women in Ireland.
• It occurs when tissue similar to the lining of the uterus (endometrium) is found outside the uterus or womb. This tissue (called endometriosis) behaves like the lining of the womb and bleeds every month when the woman has a period.
• Endometriosis is commonly found on the ovaries, behind the womb and close to the bowel.
• Like the lining of the uterus, it bleeds during a woman’s period and this can cause pain.
• Endometriosis on the ovaries can lead to ovarian cysts and severe endometriosis can cause pelvic scarring and adhesions — this makes the pelvic organs “sticky” so an ovary can get stuck to the back of the womb or the bowel can become attached to the ovary or womb.
• Treatment includes surgery and medication.
* For more information, see endometriosis.ie
Health & Living