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CHICAGO — Fibroids are a debilitating health issue that has many women suffering in silence. Some may think their symptoms are normal, while others put off treatment.

WGN’s Courtney Gousman has more on the battle with fibroids, and why women should be paying more attention to them.

Joanne, 30, spoke to WGN as she was getting ready to undergo a surgery she hopes will change her life.

“You don’t really want to do anything. My heating pad has become my best friend. It’s the only thing that really provides relief,” she said.

Last August, she was diagnosed with uterine fibroids which are non-cancerous tumors that grow in and on the uterus. Joanne’s fibroids made her abdomen bulge even as she lay flat.

“The largest one is probably a small cantaloupe,” she said. That cantaloupe-sized fibroid was also pushing on her spine.

“If I happen to lay on my back, it’s an immense pressure on my back. If I lay on my side, you can actually feel the shift,” she said.

Illinois Masonic’s, Dr. Abraham Shashoua specializes in minimally invasive gynecologic surgeries, including those using a robotic arm. He removed Joanne’s fibroids during an open myomectomy due to the advanced state of her case.

“Women can have a large fibroid pressing on their colon and cause constipation. They can have a large fibroid pressing on their bladder that causes urinary frequency. The nerves of the back can be effected by the weight of the fibroid that causes the back pain,” Shashoua said.

Other symptoms of fibroids include:

  • constipation
  • frequent urination
  • back pain
  • bloating
  • pain during intercourse
  • fatigue
  • anemia
  • heavy and extended periods of menstrual bleeding

“’I have to line my car with towels just to get to work because I may have an accident. I’m wearing depends for my sanitary protection.’ This is just awful for patients. They’ve shared these stories with me,” Dr. Cheryl Wolfe, vice president of obstetrics at Rush University Medical Center, said. She also treats patients with fibroids.

“I had a patient come in to see me and she said you know, ‘I was standing up talking to my boss doing a presentation and blood clots started running down my legs.’ And this is not an uncommon story,” Wolfe said. That’s especially true among women of color, who are three-times as likely to suffer from fibroids.

“About 80% of our patients that we see are African Americans with fibroids. Now they’re at a point that they’d like to get pregnant and they’re told that all of a sudden these fibroids can impact their fertility,” Shashoua said.

“African American women have more severe disease with uterine fibroids. They develop disease at an earlier age,” Dr. Elizabeth Stewart, consultant and professor of obstetrics and gynecology for the Mayo Clinic, said.

She said fibroids lead to nearly half of all hysterectomies performed in the United States. Black women are twice as likely to have a hysterectomy. Part of the reason maybe because fibroids can come back, even after they’ve been surgically removed.

On social media, many women shared that after their second or third myomectomy, they ultimately opted to have a hysterectomy so they could finally walk away from the disease.

Stewart has led several studies on fibroids, but said, “It’s an understudied area especially given how prevalent the problem is.”

So what causes fibroids? And why do they disproportionately affect black women? Hormones like estrogen and progesterone make them grow. For decades doctors believed there might be a genetic link, but experts are now investigating another possibility.

“In a number of studies, Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to fibroid risk and we know it’s harder for women with darker skin to make Vitamin D. Nobody’s been able to say Vitamin D treatment or restoring normal levels of Vitamin D, decreases fibroid risk and that’s what we’d really like to see,”  Stewart said.

Shashoua removed 14 fibroids from Joanne’s uterus. The cantelope-sized one, weighed more than a pound and a half.

“I’m happy I have my flat stomach back. I no longer look like I may or may not be pregnant,” Joanne said six weeks after myomectomy. “All of the pain and the patience and everything that was trying about the whole situation, I’m very glad that I ended up doing it even though I was very scared to do it.”

Without knowing what causes them, it’s hard for doctors to say exactly how to prevent fibroids. What they do know is, the longer patients wait to seek treatment, the fewer options they may have.