By Adebisi Adewusi
“Today I give thanks for Judy, for her graceful exit and for this body, which is stronger than I’ve ever given it credit for. Happy Giving Birth To Myself Day.”
Girls creator and actress Lena Dunham recently shared the above quote on Instagram, where she reflected on healing after undergoing a hysterectomy. “Judy,” being the nickname she gave her uterus.
A hysterectomy is the surgical removal of the uterus, and sometimes the cervix and supporting tissues. After removal of the uterus, conceiving and carrying a child is no longer an option. Data from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada indicate that hysterectomies are one of the most frequently performed of all surgical operations on women.
Lena Dunham chose to have a hysterectomy to alleviate her endometriosis, Eva Peron underwent a hysterectomy to treat cervical cancer, and Beverly Johnson had one to get rid of fibroid tumors. It's clear that women have the procedure for different reasons — let’s dive into the most common:
- Uterine fibroids - A uterine fibroid (known medically as a leiomyoma or myoma) is a noncancerous (benign) growth of smooth muscle and connective tissue. At least 40% percent of hysterectomies are for uterine fibroids.
- Endometriosis - Globally, endometriosis affects 1 in 10 women during their reproductive years. It occurs when uterine tissue—which bleeds during menstruation—grows in other places in the body, most commonly in the pelvic organs. According to a study on hysterectomy, endometriosis was the third most frequent reason for a hysterectomy in both Finland and the United States.
- Uterine prolapse - Vaginal prolapse is a condition in which the uterus, rectum, bladder, urethra, small bowel, or the vagina itself begins to prolapse, or fall out of their normal positions. The traditional approach to uterine prolapse is a vaginal hysterectomy.
While hysterectomies are used for the treatment of the above conditions, there is debate over how necessary the procedure is, considering its invasive nature.
“A panel convened by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists found that 76% of all hysterectomies performed today do not meet the criteria for this surgery. They are being done unnecessarily," says Ernst Bartsich, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecological surgeon.
Similarly, research published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology suggested that up to 34% of all hysterectomies were not necessary. That means more than 25,000 women every year may be undergoing needless traumatic surgery to remove their wombs.
Despite the prevalence of the procedure, hysterectomies have their place in healthcare. It’s always best to make any decision regarding your healthcare from an informed perspective. Here are four things to do if you hear the H-word from your doctor:
Get a second opinion
“If you're only getting one option, it's likely that your doctor doesn't know how to do the others," says Dr. William Parker, author of A Gynecologist’s Second Opinion.
Similarly, Kathy Kelley, founder of the hysterectomy support community HysterSisters says, “Doctors tend to specialize in a specific type of hysterectomy, and another doctor could offer you a different treatment that is less invasive. The bottom line is if your doctor suggests a hysterectomy, consult a second or third doctor."
To keep from driving yourself nuts with “what if” questions, some doctors might play down the side effects associated with hysterectomy. However, knowledge is power.
According to William Parker, MD, lead investigator of a 2009 study on the long-term health consequences of hysterectomy, women who undergo a hysterectomy have a higher risk of heart disease and lung cancer. Carry out your own research, and ask your doctor to be honest with you about how your body could change after the procedure.
Explore alternative treatment
While a hysterectomy is the right choice for some women, for others, less invasive alternatives could be a better option.
In fact, in her book The Essential Guide to Hysterectomy, Dr. Lauren Streicher posits that alternatives exist for about 90% of hysterectomies that surgeons do. Considering the side effects associated with hysterectomies, it's important to know about other forms of treatment.
Look out for yourself
If your doctor suggests a hysterectomy, carefully weigh the pros and cons, find out alternative treatments, and the potential benefits and risks. If you do find that undergoing a hysterectomy is the best choice for you, know that you are strong, and seek out the physical, mental, and emotional support you need.
For statistics on hysterectomy outcomes, visit GynReform, a site run by Deirdre Menard, a technology executive who had a hysterectomy. Also, HERS Foundation (Hysterectomy Educational Resources and Services) provides testimonials of women who have had hysterectomies so you know what to expect.
Whether having a hysterectomy is an optional or mandatory procedure for you, know that you are your best advocate, and that you are resilient. So, educate yourself about what a hysterectomy involves, choose what feels right for your body, and celebrate yourself. We’ll be rooting for you.
Have you had a hysterectomy, or have you ever considered one? Share your journey with us in the comments.
Adebisi Adewusi is a rock star writer and content consultant. Her work has appeared in Huffington Post, OkayAfrica, BBC’s Why Factor, and other international platforms. When she’s not helping businesses create compelling content, you can find her capturing moments with her Nikon D600. Follow her on Twitter at @biswag.