For most women, the prospect of having a hysterectomy at the age of 31 is unthinkable – and horrifying.
But for endometriosis sufferer Nuala Campbell, such surgery represented what she believed was her final chance to banish the intensely painful periods she had been living with since she was a teenager once and for all.
And the make-up artist reveals that she had to actually beg doctors to remove her womb completely, after a failed and painful attempt at IVF made her and husband Frankie realise that their dream of conceiving their own children was over.
“I had to see psychologists and psychiatrists and prove that I was in my right mind,” says the pretty brunette.
“But my tubes were blocked, I couldn’t go through IVF again, and my symptoms were just going to get worse and worse; I had no life at all, I was just living in turmoil every single day. For me really, knowing there was no chance of children meant it became an easy decision.”
Sadly, Nuala is not alone in her suffering; it’s believed that as many as 2,000 women in Northern Ireland have endometriosis, an often excruciating condition which painful periods and pain in the pelvic area. It is caused when endometrial tissue (cells from the lining of the womb) is found outside the uterus, ‘trapped’ in the pelvic area and close to other organs like the ovaries, bowel etc.
The cells respond to the female hormone oestrogen, just like the lining of the uterus does each month.
Throughout each month the cells multiply and swell, and then break down as if ready to be shed at the time of your period. However, because they are trapped inside the pelvic area, they cannot escape. They form patches of tissue called endometriosis.
It is a common condition, but sadly, many women fail to achieve a diagnosis of endometriosis.
Nuala herself suffered from it from the age of 15 to 21, before she was finally diagnosed.
“I was being hospitalised every month,” she recalls of her teenage years.
“I was passing out, vomiting, I was just in absolute agony, and my whole midriff was swollen. I looked like I was pregnant.
“Every month this was a regular occurrence, I was straight up to A&E no matter where I was. It would just hit and you would drop and that would be it.
Then it started lasting longer and longer, coming before my periods arrived and lasting after they had left. Obviously it was getting worse, so by the stage that I was diagnosed at 21 I was at the worst stage - stage 4. All my organs were stuck together.”
It seems incredible that it took so long for the condition to be diagnosed, and Nuala reveals that she was told to put it down to painful periods and shockingly, a “low pain threshold.”
She says: “I was told, ‘there’s nothing wrong with you, all women go through this.’ But clearly they don’t, because I was passing out and normal people don’t pass out with period cramps.
‘‘It was horrific, and then there was the just not knowing as well, and thinking, ‘do I really have a low pain threshold? Am I just a drama queen?’
‘‘So getting that diagnosis brought a lot of peace with it. But it also brought me anger at the years that had passed that they had ignored it, and my body was being torn apart.”
Because endometriosis can make conceiving babies difficult, Nuala was told, at 21, that if she hoped to have children, it was advised she try sooner rather than later. At this point, she didn’t have a partner, but when she met her future husband, Frankie, the couple tried to conceive for around a year or more, before being put on the waiting list for IVF treatment.
Whilst they were waiting to start treatment, Nuala had another operation, during which doctors discovered that her fallopian tubes were “destroyed”. Needless to say, the IVF treatment proved very painful.
“I swore I would never be able to go through it again, and it failed almost straight away,” she says.
“So then I had a full hysterectomy done last June.”
Doctors warned her that surgery may not totally expel the problem, but mercifully, Nuala has found that her endometriosis symtoms have lessoned greatly.
“It has reduced a lot of my pain,” she says, adding that on the day she found out that the operation was to go ahead, she “cried with pure relief.”
However, she still feels strongly - like a lot of sufferers - that not enough is being done to promote awareness of the condition, or indeed treat it, and that there is a need for a dedicated clinic here in Northern Ireland, as well as better education in schools in terms of teaching young girls what is ‘normal’ when it comes to their periods - and what is not.
For Nuala now, her brave and proactive approach to her own health paid off, but that does not mean she does not feel devastated on a regular basis when she is reminded of what she has had to sacrifice.
“I try to be positive, I really don’t think anything is to be achieved by negative thinking, but that’s not to say I’m always like this,” she says.
“There are days when I will see a mother and baby in the street and just be heartbroken. When friends are having children it can still hit even though this was something I asked for.”
**Nuala and the endometriosis support group she is involved with will be handing leaflets outside Belfast City Hall next Thursday (March 13) to raise awareness, before having tea with the Lord Mayor in an attempt to raise the profile of the disease. Any woman who would like some advice on the condition are welcome to come and speak to the group, who will be there at 10am.