Bronwyn Ford’s journey with pelvic organ prolapse has been emotional. She describes frustration, sadness, anger and disbelief but on the other side – acceptance, resilience and empowerment.
Research shows prolapse can run in families. Bronwyn says she wishes someone had told her that she was in a higher risk category for prolapse because of her family history, heavy lifting for work, and use of forceps and injuries during childbirth. She says her knowledge of prolapse was “virtually non-existent” before being diagnosed with it.
Bronwyn’s first diagnosis of prolapse occurred during a routine check-up. At 46 years old, she went to the GP for a pap smear where the doctor told her she had a Grade 1 (mild) to Grade 2 (moderate) uterine/vaginal prolapse.
“There was never any major dialogue,” Bronwyn says. Looking back, Bronwyn thinks because she was lying down for the pap smear, the full extent of her prolapse couldn’t be noticed. “Lying down, prolapses can go back into a more normal position. Standing up, being examined from below can be more accurate,” Bronwyn says.
THE DIAGNOSIS JOURNEY
Over the next few years, Bronwyn saw several health professionals and learned about a number of other bladder, bowel and pelvic health issues. “That same year
I had a colonoscopy for a diagnosis of another problem and was told by the specialist that I had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a rectal prolapse, a uterine prolapse and haemorrhoids. By the time I turned 48 I was perimenopausal and suffering symptoms from my prolapses,” she said. Bronwyn’s experience is common. Many women experience an onset or worsening of prolapse symptoms during perimenopause and/or after menopause.
“At the age of 49, after suffering severe prolapse symptoms and a period that had lasted a month, my new GP referred me to an obstetrician gynaecologist and a urogynaecologist. After multiple tests, I was diagnosed with a Grade 3 (severe) bladder prolapse, a Grade 3 leading to a Grade 4 (very severe) uterine prolapse, and complete bilateral avulsions (pelvic floor muscles torn from the pubic bone),” she said.
The first time I can recall that I ever heard about prolapse was from my mum,” Bronwyn says. “She used to say to me that her doctor said she had a prolapsed “pee-hole”, in her words. After she passed away, I was going through her medical records and saw they mentioned prolapse. Unfortunately, I never got to discuss any of this in detail with her as she had passed away before my own symptoms became quite bothersome."
This extremely serious set of diagnoses were somewhat unexpected for Bronwyn. Her torn pelvic floor muscles would have occurred as a result of childbirth but weren’t detected until more than 17 years later. She recalls her experience after childbirth as “suffering silently”. “There was so much going on, I didn’t attribute it to prolapse. I didn’t know who to talk to about it. I didn’t know I should be talking about it,” she says.
Bronwyn is passionate about ensuring other women don’t feel as alone or unaware as she did. She dedicates much of her spare time to raising awareness of prolapse and supporting others through Facebook groups for women with prolapse.
Bronwyn also recently shared her experience as a guest on SBS Insight’s episode on birth trauma, ‘Giving birth better’ (Episode 6, 20 April 2021). Watch at SBS on demand.
In 2012 after receiving her diagnosis, Bronwyn’s symptoms were getting worse.
“My prolapses greatly affected every aspect of my life and the quality of my life. First thing in the morning I would feel quite good, however as the day progressed the symptoms would worsen and by the afternoon and evening all I would want to do was lie down to ease the pressure and discomfort. Unfortunately, gravity, being on my feet all day and heavy lifting for work, and everything that comes with looking after a household, worsened the symptoms.”
Thankfully, she would soon experience relief. Bronwyn underwent major repair surgery and a hysterectomy which were successful in treating some of the symptoms. Unfortunately, the pelvic floor muscle avulsions couldn’t be repaired.
“The surgery greatly reduced the symptoms I had been suffering, including a heavy dragging sensation, a visible bulge at my vaginal opening, difficulties with urination and bowel movements and lower back pain. It’s now been nine years since my surgery, which greatly reduced my symptoms; however, it could not repair all the damage.”
Bronwyn (left) at the SBS studios with her daughter Jess, who accompanied her as a support person to the filming of Insight.
Today, Bronwyn manages her mild bladder prolapse and mild rectocele (rectum bulging into the back vaginal wall) symptoms with extra bladder and bowel care and a diet to avoid constipation. Over the years, she has also sought the guidance and support of physiotherapists who specialise in women’s health, particularly pelvic floor health. Together they worked on increasing her pelvic floor muscle strength and managing her symptoms. Bronwyn credits the work of these practitioners, who educated her further about prolapse, and recommends this as an integral part of symptom management and improvement.
BRONWYN’S FEELINGS ON THE PAST AND THE FUTURE
“During my journey with pelvic organ prolapse I have experienced a variety of emotions: good and bad, “says Bronwyn. I have felt frustration, sadness, anger and disbelief as well as acceptance, resilience and empowerment. I have accepted that this has happened to my body. I can’t go back and change what occurred, but I can change my thoughts and feelings about it and how I deal with it.
My body is resilient and so am I. Even though I suffered injuries during birthing, my body was able to compensate for this for many years and enabled me to continue functioning in day-to-day life. This resilience has also helped me cope emotionally with other health issues I have dealt with in recent years including non-invasive breast cancer and treatment and acute onset rheumatoid arthritis.
I am empowered. I have educated myself about prolapse and all its aspects to enable me to understand why and how I developed it. I know I can still live a full and active life whilst living with the day-to-day symptoms and hurdles that it throws at me.
I would like everyone to know that prolapse affects many women, from mid-teens through to end of life. Giving birth and menopause are two of the main risk factors for development of prolapse, however there are other risk factors as well. Even women who have not had children can develop prolapse. It can also vary significantly from person to person, ranging from mild through to severe, with symptoms not always an indication of the severity of the prolapse.
Bronwyn says, "I am excited and looking forward to a future where awareness of pelvic organ prolapse is widespread. My hope is that three main things can be achieved in the future:
- Information and support are readily available and easy to access
- Treatment options are varied and effective over the long term, and
- Individual care is a focus, where each person is looked at on an individual basis and is offered treatment options to suit their needs and circumstances.”
There is support available. Read more about prolapse online from the Continence Foundation of Australia.
ou can phone the National Continence Helpline on 1800 33 00 66 between the hours of 8.00 am and 8.00 pm AEST Monday to Friday, for information, advice and referrals from Nurse Continence Specialists about prolapse and bladder and bowel control health.
Phone the free National Continence Helpline 1800 33 00 66 to speak to a nurse continence specialist about bladder and bowel health.
This story was first published in Bridge Magazine. Subscribe and receive Bridge straight to your inbox.