By Miranda Larbi
That’s what Cécile’s period felt like during the worst episodes of her endometriosis.
Up until a year ago, the agonising gynaecological condition left the 42-year-old in so much pain she could barely drag herself out of bed to make a cup of tea.
Fast forward 12 months and incredibly, she’s managed to run two marathons and a series of half marathons.
How? Well, Cécile claims that exercise has given her back her life by significantly reducing her symptoms – that and acupuncture.
‘Untreatable, unbearable pain’
“My symptoms started shortly after my periods began, aged 12,” she tells The Sun.
“I was diagnosed 18 years later. Multiple cysts had formed on and around my ovaries and some of them ruptured.
“The pain had become unbearable.”
The London-based sale executive’s symptoms included throbbing pelvic pain, vomiting every time she had a period, exhaustion, bloating, food intolerances, pain during and after sex, acne, brain fog and recurrent belly button infections.
She said years of struggling with the condition left her feeling “hopeless, anxious, fearful for the future and isolated”.
“I had a great feeling of loss and sense of grief for the life that I could have had,” she explains.
In a bid to deal with it, Cécile had six operations and took a cocktail of prescription hormones and strong painkillers.
In 2010, she finally decided to stop having hormonal treatment.
“During laparoscopy no. 5, the surgeon inserted a Mirena coil (an IUD),” she says.
Multiple cysts had formed on and around my ovaries and some of them ruptured. The pain had become unbearable
“I put on a stone in two weeks, the pain was so intense that I was in tears most days and I had daily bleeding.
“I couldn’t work at all and I felt desperate, having had exhausted all possible treatments.
“The consultant asked me to stick to it as, sometimes, the Mirena coil takes time to work.
“I was living in Cape Town at the time and after six months of agony and a visit to A&E with ruptured cysts, I begged a local gynaecologist to remove the device.”
From that moment onwards, she promised herself that she’d take charge of her health and steer clear of any medical treatments going forward.
Off the hormones, and onto acupuncture
The South African specialist suggested Cécile try acupuncture alongside going on the Pill.
“I was skeptical at first since he was the first medical professional to recommend an alternative treatment – I had never really considered them before,” she admits.
“I went back to London, changed my diet, stopped smoking (after 19 years) and started acupuncture.”
After a month of weekly acupuncture sessions, she claims that 90 per cent of her daily torture had gone.
She continued the therapy and started training, and said her health was better than it had been in years.
After spending a bit of time in NYC where she did little running and started to see her health waver again, in 2012, she moved back to London and started running more.
Symptoms of endometriosis
Endometriosis is where cells like the ones in the lining of the womb (uterus) are found elsewhere in the body.
Each month, these cells react in the same way to those in the womb – building up and then breaking down and bleeding. Unlike the cells in the womb that leave the body as a period, this blood has no way to escape.
That can lead to infertility, fatigue, bowel and bladder problems, as well as really heavy, painful periods.
It affects one in ten women in the UK.
- Painful, heavy, or irregular periods
- Pain during or after sex
- Painful bowel movements
The cause of endometriosis is unknown and there is no definite cure.
According to Endometriosis UK, it takes over seven years on average for women to finally receive a diagnosis.
It’s estimated that up to 50 per cent of infertile women has the condition.
Source: Endometriosis UK
She ran her first half-marathon the following year.
“By that stage, I was feeling much better but I still had very bad bouts of endometriosis, during which I felt hopelessly ill,” the 42-year-old says.
“I realised that endometriosis had probably grown back since the last surgery so I decided to have a ‘last’ laparoscopy – a clean start if you will.
“I figured that it would be easier to maintain my health without any remnants of already-affected cells. In 2015, I trained really hard for almost six months for the Royal Parks half marathon.
“During this period, I experienced next to no symptoms. Life was great until I stopped running (in order to give myself a break) and endometriosis came back with a vengeance.
Cardio became her ‘saviour’
Many women have grown up with associating periods and gynaecological issues with getting out of exercise – not starting it.
“I totally understand why they would feel that way. I did too,” Cécile says.
“At my worst, I was bed-ridden and at times, I couldn’t even walk to the kitchen to fix myself a cup of tea so exercise was the last thing on my mind.”
When I think about my journey with running and what I achieved in last year alone, all I can do is laugh
But she also wishes that she’d known enough to use exercise as the first port of call, and not as the last resort.
“I am scarred physically and mentally due to too much surgery, horrific hormonal treatments and repeated failed attempts at getting better,” she admits.
“Some of my organs are stuck together because of scar tissues and they’re probably somewhat damaged as a result of too much laser.”
Since that point, she’s run all kinds of races – something she’d never imagined doing.
In fact, she says that when she looks back at all she’s achieved in the last year alone, all she “can do is laugh”.
“I was repulsed by exercise most of my life and I had no interest or desire to get into sports – ever; with or without endometriosis.
“My health was bad for as long as I remember and I learnt to accept my ‘physical limitations’. I would spend days, sometimes weeks, stuck in bed, curled into a ball. So no, I never pictured myself running, not in a million years.”
‘Exercise is my therapy’
Cécile doesn’t just run.
Like any good athlete, she cross-trains – doing a variety of activities every week from yoga to spin, swimming to pilates.
That cocktail has stopped her from getting injured, putting too much strain on any one particular group of muscles or joints, and kept her in shape.
But it’s not just exercise that’s helped to improve things.
Which activities does Cécile recommend?
“I use different disciplines for different reasons, all of them related to the management of endometriosis and with the view to improve my quality of life”
- running: cardio lowers oestrogen levels in the body (although it’s not been proven by research)
- antigravity fitness and yoga:back decompression for lower-back pain
- reformer pilates: core, pelvic floor muscles and posture
- spin: cardio without putting pressure on my knees, low impact on my calves, feet and back
- swimming: relaxing, zoning out
‘Changing my diet helped too’
Cécile says that changing what she eats also played a huge role in pain management.
Born and raised in France, she says that half of life has been a “wheat fest”.
“My diet consisted of gluten, lactose, sugar, caffeine and cigarettes.
“I first heard the words endometriosis and IBS at the age of 30 and although I already knew that I couldn’t digest certain foods, I never really made the link between diet, illness and quality of life.”
While she’s not on a “diet” per se, she now avoids eating any sugar, gluten, lactose, processed foods, fried foods and caffeine “80 per cent of the time”
My diet consisted of gluten, lactose, sugar, caffeine and cigarettes.
“The rest of the time, I eat whatever I like, knowing that I will most probably end up bloated after my meals – I accept that.
“I can’t digest alcohol (endometriosis can occur on the liver) so I try to drink as little as I can.
“Sugar is pretty bad but the worst is probably gluten. Everyone is different.”
The science backs it up
And there does seem to be some evidence out there to support Cécile’s experience.
A 2012 followed 156 patients for a year and found that 75 per cent reported a “statistically significant change in painful symptoms” after 12 months on a gluten-free diet.
“A considerable increase of scores for all domains of physical functioning, general health perception, vitality, social functioning, and mental health was observed in all patients.”
Meanwhile, the Saint Louis University School of Medicine’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Women’s Health Center for Endometriosis recommends people living with endometriosis follow an anti-inflammatory eating plan which experiments with eating and eliminating added sugars, gluten and dairy to see what effect they genuinely have on each person.
If you have endometriosis, keeping a food diary and experimenting with how different foods make you feel is also recommended, experts say.
It’s also worth talking to your GP about having to have a food intolerance test rather than cutting out whole foods groups, just in case.
Cécile’s top tips for fellow endometriosis sufferers:
Living with a chronic condition can be devastatingly hard but Cécile says that concentrating on achieving the following can make life easier:
- claim your body back
- learn about your body and about the condition: that’s empowerment
- take charge of your medical care
- reconcile with your body and your mind
- allow yourself to have aspirations and dreams
What’s Cécile’s advice to other endometriosis sufferers?
So, what’s the one thing that Cécile wants other women who may be struggling with the condition to know?
“Cardio does not cure endometriosis and there are symptoms that exercise can’t help with: fatigue, bowel and bladder issues” – but it’s worth a try,” she says.
“I know that sometimes getting out of bed can seem like a huge task, let alone leaving the house to exercise but it’s worth a try.
“In seven years of running, exercise has not once made me feel worse.
“I still have bad days and bouts of endometriosis that are so intense that they literally floor me but my quality of life has improved dramatically.