How a Preston woman serving in the RAF endured years of agony through endometriosis and was told to 'deal with it,' hopes a medical trial will ease symptoms
A woman who says her severe endometriosis had left her feeling like her pelvis was being pulled through a vice has spoken about how she has endured years of torment due to people not understanding her illness.
Working in a male-dominated environment with the Royal Air Force as a communications analyst, Zoe Hannan, of Preston, says she experienced lack of compassion and even bullying at times.
It affected her work as she suffered severe fatigue and was even forced to leave her base in Afghanistan as she had collapsed.
Now, she is ready to speak out to highlight just how debilitating endometriosis is.
Zoe, 40, explains: “I took me 19 years to get diagnosed, when on average it takes seven years. But thinking back, I have been having problems since I started my period at the age of 11.
“I remember suffering from severe abdominal pain and I collapsed at school. I was rushed to A&E and doctors thought I had appendicitis, only to be told I had constipation.
“I initially got diagnosed with IBS which is used when people can’t figure out what is wrong. During my time in the RAF I was investigated for coeliac disease, inflammatory bowel conditions like Crohn’s and colitis, diverticulitis, stomach ulcers and even mental health and depression.
“It got to a point where I was told I just had a low pain threshold and I had a bad period, so just deal with it.
“I remember lying on the floor in the toilets at my base in excruciating pain, thinking, ‘will this ever end?’
“I got bullied heavily at one point because of my symptoms. My boss never had any sympathy for anyone with health issues.
“I was struggling with fatigue. I would go to the bathroom and fall asleep.
“I would have serious flare ups. I had one in Afghanistan, which left me in serious danger as I had to leave my base unarmed and go in a blue light ambulance to go to the hospital at another base. I was put on a drip and given morphine. I was in so much pain, I collapsed outside the medical centre.
“Most people have never heard of endometriosis. I work in a male dominated environment so there is no empathy and even women who have never experienced it dismiss it. People assume you have a low pain threshold or you are using it to get out of work.
“But it feels like I am being stabbed in the thigh with a knitting needle and then being put in a car jack and being pummelled up and down. It is like having your pelvis trapped in a vice and tightened.
“It makes you lose your self worth and you draw into yourself. It affected my relationships, my social life and family - absolutely everything.
“I started comfort eating and putting on weight, reaching 15st.”
She reveals: “I saw a doctor at RAF Cranwell for my back pain and he sent me to a military physiotherapist. She said that my symptoms mirrored her own and that she had endometriosis, so I went to see a gynaecologist.
“I had a laparoscopy and I was diagnosed. I felt relief, followed by anger. I was overwhelmed by the fact I did have a problem and a proper illness but angry because no-one listened to me and people thought I was making it up.
“I know a lot of women with endometriosis would say the same. People have attempted suicide as a result of the way they feel.”
Zoe says that after researching her condition, she realised it would decrease her chances of conceiving a baby naturally.
Part of her treatment also meant she was unable to try for a baby, as she was injected with a prostate cancer drug to force her into a chemically induced menopause, where her periods stop.
She adds: “This was a short term solution but when I was on the drug I was unable to try for a baby, as it stops your periods, so it was catch 22.
“When my ex partner and I started to try for a baby, I went through several tests on my tubes and I had further surgery.
“I was told I had a lesser chance of having a natural conception, which made me was worry as I was already an older mum.”
Zoe and her partner ended their relationship and after meeting her new partner, she fell pregnant within five months, giving birth to Oscar two years ago.
She says: “I am one of the lucky ones. We never thought it would happen.”
Zoe is in the process of being officially medically discharged after serving in the RAF for 22 years on the grounds of suffering from PTSD following a traumatic birth. Her endometriosis also plays a factor in the medical discharge.
She explains: “I have a 36-hour labour, followed by an emergency C-section. Oscar had to be resuscitated twice and I didn’t see him for 12 hours.
“I had 12 hours of not knowing if my baby was dead or alive as I was in a ward with other mums and their babies.
“Then I struggled as a single mum and I couldn’t bear to be apart from my baby for too long.
“Everybody’s birth stories are different but my cup was already full after previously spending a tour on the frontline in Bosnia and it didn’t take much to tip me over.”
Zoe says she is in a much better place and she is currently on a national medical trial, where she has had a Mirena coil fitted. It contains a progesterone-like substance that is released into the uterus over a set period of time.
She adds: “It has really helped me and alongside losing six stone, it has reduced my symptoms by 90 per cent.
“I am no longer worried about being hospitalised or when my next flare up will be.
“I am having weekly counselling to help me through certain aspects of my PTSD and endometriosis.”
Zoe is now focused on looking after her son Oscar, who turns two on October 17, and running LighterLife Xpress Slimming Club in Preston.
After losing more than five stone with LighterLife, she decided to use her own experiences to support others in achieving their weight-loss goals.
She runs sessions at Anchorage Business Park every Saturday from 9.30am until 11am.