Lena Dunham has revealed that she recently underwent elective surgery to have a total hysterectomy – which involves the surgical removal of the cervix and uterus. Following a years-long battle with endometriosis, which left her crippled with chronic pain, the Girls actress has penned a powerful essay in the March issue of Vogue about her decision to undergo the surgery.
Dunham explained that the decision to undergo the elective surgery was not one she made lightly. But, after “years of complex surgeries measuring in the double digits” and even alternative treatments like “pelvic-floor therapy, massage therapy, pain therapy, color therapy, acupuncture” and yoga, she decided it was the best course of action.
In the last 12 months alone, Dunham has been hospitalised at least three times for her endometriosis. Last April, she underwent surgery to separate her ovaries from her rectal wall, after which she announced that she was endometriosis-free. But, less than a month later, while at the Met Gala in New York, she was rushed to hospital following complications from the surgery. Days later, she cancelled her national “Lenny IRL” tour, telling her fans she was “in the greatest amount of physical pain that I have ever experienced" after doctors discovered more endometriosis during subsequent surgery.
In her essay, Dunham explained that after her hysterectomy surgery, the doctors informed her that there were more complications with her reproductive organs than they’d previously realised. In addition to endometrial disease, Dunham had “an odd hump-like protrusion and a septum running down the middle”, as well as retrograde bleeding “aka my period running in reverse so that my stomach is full of blood” and her ovary had “settled in on the muscles around the sacral nerves in my back that allow us to walk”.
“The only beautiful detail,” Dunham wrote, “is that the organ – which is meant to be shaped like a light bulb – was shaped like a heart.”
These stories are incredible partly because, for generations, women’s bodies have been shrouded in secrecy, as if they were merely vessels to carry children rather than human beings in their own right
Dunham isn’t the first woman to open up about her struggles with her health and the difficult decisions she’s made to try and improve her quality of life. In 2013, Angelina Jolie wrote an essay in The New York Times about her decision to have a double mastectomy. Jolie carries a gene that sharply increases her risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer, so the actress decided to take matters into her own hands and undergo an elective double mastectomy. In 2015, she revealed that she had also had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. “It is not easy to make these decisions,” she wrote. “But it is possible to take control and tackle head-on any health issue. You can seek advice, learn about the options and make choices that are right for you. Knowledge is power.”
Then, last year, Serena Williams opened up to Vogue about the complications she faced during and after the birth of her daughter, Alexis. The day after her emergency C-section, she suddenly felt short of breath. Williams had suffered from blood clots before and knew the warning signs, so she found the nearest nurse and told her she needed a CT scan and a blood thinner right away. As is so often the case for women experiencing pain, both the nurse and doctor dismissed her claims. Eventually a CT scan revealed that Williams was right – several small blood clots had, in fact, settled in her lungs. “I was like, listen to Dr Williams!” she told Vogue.
These stories are incredible partly because, for generations, women’s bodies have been shrouded in secrecy, as if they were merely vessels to carry children rather than human beings in their own right. It’s the reason why women still carry tampons up their sleeves and, up until recently, why husbands stayed outside the room while their wives were giving birth. And, yet, here these women are, talking about their bodies on the pages of Vogue and The New York Times – refusing to be shamed into silence.
But they’re also incredible because at The Pool, we’ve written a lot about the ways in which medical professionals fail to take women’s pain seriously. And you’ve written to us, telling us about your stories, your pain and all the ways in which you were ignored. But these women – Dunham, Jolie and Williams – refused to be sidelined in conversations about their own health. Their stories show what can happen when women’s bodies aren’t pushed to the sidelines of medicine but, instead, put in the front and centre.