Silent illnesses, also known as invisible illnesses or hidden disabilities, are medical conditions that others can’t necessarily see. When someone doesn’t look sick, it can be harder for them to ask for help or be taken seriously by others. Due to the invisibility, medical diagnoses for silent illnesses are often delayed.
Since May is International Menstrual Month, VUSH is here to shed some light on Endometriosis (endo) and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), two common but silent reproductive health conditions. It’s easy to let silent illnesses stay silent, so let’s start the conversation.
Endo: Endometriosis occurs when tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside of the uterus, for example, on the abdomen or pelvis. While this is commonly misunderstood as endometrial tissue, it's actually similar tissue that can be found in people without uteruses (yes, even cis-men). This tissue can become trapped and inflamed, causing intense pain.
A painful period is one of the most common signs of endo. Periods can be difficult and inconvenient, but severe pain and symptoms aren’t normal. Endometriosis can also be accompanied by heavy periods or bleeding in between periods, pain during or after penetrative sex, irregular bowel movements, and fertility issues. Unfortunately, many endo babes struggle for 7-10 years before getting a proper diagnosis and explanation for their pain.
PCOS: Polycystic ovary syndrome is another silent reproductive illness that can cause severe pain and irregular periods. PCOS differs from endo because it is a hormonal condition, with side effects including acne and oily skin, weight gain and increased facial or body hair. A person with PCOS is likely to have inconsistent or occasionally missing periods. With PCOS, the ovaries can develop cysts and become atypically large, which can sometimes mean an overproduction of testosterone and male sex hormones.
If you experience any of these symptoms regularly and are concerned about your period, see your healthcare provider. Severe period pain is not normal and could be a sign of endo, PCOS or another reproductive health condition. It is also important to note that these silent illnesses can be genetic, so it might be worth having a chat with your female family members about their genetic history.
For more information on reproductive health, have a listen to theLife Uncut podcast episode featuring Angie Kent, an iconic Australian public figure who suffers from endo, PCOS, adenomyosis, fibroids and interstitial cystitis.
7 TIPS FOR SUPPORTING SOMEONE WITH A SILENT ILLNESS:
Now that you know the basics of endo and PCOS, here’s how to help a friend, partner or family member manage their silent reproductive illness.
Tip #1: Research.
Try to actually understand what your loved one is suffering with. Reading this article is a great start, well done! Continue doing as much as you can to learn about their experience. On the other hand, if you’re the person with a silent illness, feel free to link this blog or other resources to the people in your life. You deserve for them to know and understand what you’re going through.
Tip #2: Communicate.
Check in with your loved one regularly. Rather than waiting for them to start the conversation, show that you care by bringing it up yourself. When someone is suffering from a silent illness, it can be hard to reach out to others or trust that anyone will understand. Symptoms of reproductive illnesses can fluctuate throughout the monthly cycle, so it’s important to check in with your loved one on a weekly basis.
Tip #3: Empathise.
It can be really hard to understand what’s going on in other people’s bodies, especially when it’s a reproductive condition and you don’t have the same anatomy as your loved one. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking mood swings and pain due to periods are an overreaction, they are often related to real illnesses. Remember, just because you can’t see it, doesn't mean it’s less real.
Tip #4: Love.
Know when it’s time to do a few extra small acts of kindness. People who suffer from endo or PCOS can experience debilitating pain during their period, and tracking their cycle can help you know when they need a little extra love. Making your loved one a tea shows you care, watching a movie with them helps distract them from the pain, and doing a few extra chores can lighten their load and reduce stress.
Tip #5: Health.
Make an effort to support your loved one’s overall wellbeing. Without putting too much pressure on them to get out and about when they don’t feel like it, try to lock in a regular walk or fitness class to boost their mood and keep them active. Cooking them a nutritious meal can be really helpful too, as some people with endo or PCOS find that their diet influences their symptoms.
Tip #6: Sex.
Silent illnesses, especially reproductive conditions, can have a huge impact on a person’s sex life. If your partner has endo, they might be experiencing painful sex, especially when it comes to penetration. Your partner’s pain and pleasure is just as much your responsibility as it is theirs. Be gentle, make sure they are comfortable, and suggest intimate alternatives if they’re not feeling up to sex.
Tip #7: Contribute.
Managing a chronic illness is rarely affordable. If you can, try and contribute some finances to support the management and treatment of your loved one’s condition. Whether it’s driving them to a medical appointment, raising funds for their keyhole surgery, or gifting them our period pain relief device, Aura, there are many big or small ways to financially support someone with endo or PCOS.