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What does Belfast mum Caroline McCormick have in common with these famous faces?

They all fought endometriosis to have a baby. It’s a painful condition that affects nearly two million women in the UK but often goes undiagnosed which is why it’s become known as ...A quiet epidemic.

Take a seemingly random group of celebs — Louise Redknapp, Emma Bunton, Anna Friel and Anthea Turner — and it might take you a while to work out what they have in common, apart from an enviable life.

The link, a condition which affects one in 10 women in the UK, is endometriosis. This is the second commonest gynaecological complaint that occurs when part of the cell lining of the womb migrates to other parts of the body. It causes painful periods and can affect fertility.

Emma Bunton, now 35, has produced two sons after treatment — Beau, born in 2007 and Tate, born last year.

“I was diagnosed when I was 25,” she says. “I remember the doctor saying at the time: ‘50% of women with endometriosis go on to have children.’

“I thought, only 50%. It scared the life out of me.”

Anna Jaminson started up a local support group for sufferers 27 years ago in Belfast in order to remove that sense of helplessness. She says: “There was very little help and advice when I needed it. You were patted on the head and told to have a hysterectomy. Now there’s more hope and better treatment, but it’s important to catch it early.”

There are also happy endings. All of the famous women listed above have a family, apart from Anthea Turner, and in the group of women we talked to, Caroline and Jackie have children, Cathy is planning to start a family and Coreen is looking for a donor egg so that she can embark on another \[c.obrien\]second round of IVF.

What they all agree on is the wonderful support they’ve got from the group. Coreen sums up: “It has been a godsend. I don’t think that I’d have got to this stage without it.”

‘l was told to have a hysterectomy’

Coreen Jones (41) is a nursery assistant who lives with her partner Sam in Newtownabbey and is now hoping to have a child using a donor egg. She says:

I was on the pill for 10 years, but within two months of my coming off, the pain started. I visited my GP regularly for a full year, had ultrasounds of my kidneys then my bowel, and finally they looked at the gynaecological situation.

In 2005 I had my first open surgery. I knew that something was wrong, but they didn’t tell me that I had endometriosis until November 2006. They couldn’t take any of it away as it was too extensive and advised me that I should have a full hysterectomy with the tubes and everything removed.

But I was still in my 30s and hoping to have a family. I met my partner Sam seven years ago, explained everything and told him that if he wanted to jump ship, he could. In fact, he’s been amazing. He’s come to the endometriosis group with me and attends my appointments too.

In the middle of all this, my mum passed away with breast cancer and I felt very alone. My dad said that I should go ahead with the operation if I was in pain, but he didn’t understand.

We were referred to the fertility clinic and started that journey by joining the waiting list. You get one free cycle of IVF on the NHS. As the first cycle — free on the NHS — wasn’t successful, the next will cost over £4,600.

Now I need an egg donor as they couldn’t reach my ovaries to get the egg. It’s not easy to raise the money and Sam and I had to think about it first.

We’ve got the money and need an egg donor. We put an ad in The Belfast Telegraph first in October, when we got a response, and then in January after which we didn’t hear anything. We’ll advertise again after Easter. I’ve heard of couples putting ads on the side of a bus, so maybe we could try that.

I don’t want to know my donor or have any relationship with her. The first time we advertised, somebody came forward very quickly, so it could have been a friend. Everything went so well until the pregnancy test showed negative.

There used to be egg and sperm banks waiting, but now that children have the right to contact their genetic parents when they turn 18, it’s more difficult. Two friends and I were discussing this and one said that she’d be OK with donating as it would just be an egg, but the other said no, it would be a baby and she couldn’t bear to see him or her with someone else.

I’ve had fertility counselling as this isn’t easy. But we are hopeful!”

‘My baby’s birth made me realise how lucky I was’

Caroline McCormick (34) works as an executive officer in a primary school and lives with her husband David and daughter Isabella (8 months) in Belfast. She says:

When Isabella was born healthy on July 30 last year, it was so amazing to have her. She had a full head of hair and was screaming, but I knew just how lucky I was.

I discovered that I had endometriosis after I got married in 2005. My husband and I started trying for a baby but nothing was happening so we were referred to a fertility consultant at the Royal Victoria hospital.

He performed a laparoscopy and discovered the endometriosis. He told me there was a good chance that this was causing the delay in me getting pregnant.

After he’d removed the bit of my womb lining that had moved — and it can go anywhere in your body — it still didn’t happen. So we decided to try IVF and were told we had a six- month window of opportunity. In Northern Ireland you only get one free cycle of IVF on the NHS, so we were really lucky that it worked for us. I became pregnant quickly and was so thrilled but I was pretty apprehensive too. There is a high risk of miscarriage, but once we got past the three-month stage, we could breathe more easily.

But I still kept the fact that I was pregnant quiet and took things easy as we knew how precious this baby was. I had a lot of check-ups and even changed my diet, cutting out gluten.

The diagnosis was a shock but I suppose I’d known something was wrong since I was about 15. I used to feel horrible every month and my symptoms got worse, with a lot of pain.

My month consisted of two good weeks and two horrible weeks, and I was on painkillers a lot of the time. You don’t want to keep complaining to friends, but it’s tough not being able to join in.

Life now is great and, since having Isabella, my symptoms have improved and I don’t suffer to the same degree. Maybe it’s because I breastfed her.

I’ve been lucky and I feel that the support group has helped.

I also found a very good consultant. Information is key, and medical professionals like GPs need more so they can spot this problem, which isn’t always easy to diagnose, and offer women help.

‘There’s always a shoulder to cry on at the group ’

Cathy McCartan (27) is from Co Down but now lives with her fiance in Calgary, Canada and works as an executive assistant. She says:

My fiance moved here a couple of years ago and after a year apart, I came over. It’s a great feeling to be here, as when I was at my worst I couldn’t get from Newcastle to Belfast because of the fainting and the pain.

I honestly wish there had been more coverage of endometriosis when I was younger. From the age of 13, without going into gruesome detail, I always had really painful, heavy periods. I come from a family with a lot of females and although they didn’t want to patronise, they’d say ‘Come on, get on with it. It’s just the time of the month’. But we didn’t know what was wrong then. When I was still only 13, I was put on the pill to regulate my cycle. But the pain went on and at times was unbearable. Eventually my mum said we had to get help as something was seriously not right. Eventually I was told by the hospital at the age of 21 that the only solution was a hysterectomy. It was such a shock. One day, my very good friend Isla took me to the hospital and things escalated from there.

They did a laparoscopy and diagnosed severe endometriosis plus cysts on my ovaries. I just thought ‘What does this mean? ‘You hear the word and immediately look it up on the internet which isn’t always a wise move.

I eventually had surgery and after laser treatment, things improved a bit. The brilliant surgeon Dr Hunter found evidence everywhere and said he had to peel my ovaries like oranges. I then heard about Anna’s support group for endo sufferers and started going. There’s always a shoulder to cry on there and somebody on the end of a phone or email. Five years ago I met my partner, who’s from home, and he’s been amazing. I had to have hormone injections which brought on early menopause symptoms and hot flushes, but I was in my early twenties. It was crazy. Things are better now. You have to devise a coping mechanism. I’m looking forward to getting married and hopefully starting a family but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

‘At 22, I had to have an artificial menopause’

Robyn Atcheson (23) is single, lives in Newtownards, works in student records and is studying for a Master’s in history at Queen’s. She says:

As a teenager I was ill every month and kept being told that it was normal. When I turned 18, I asked my GP if I could be referred on and saw a gynaecologist, then had a laparoscopy but I wasn’t diagnosed with endometriosis until later.

After surgery, everything was fine for about a year — with no pain or symptoms — but when I turned 20 I collapsed one day while in the Botanic Gardens and I had to be taken by ambulance to the City Hospital.

It has been awful since then and I can’t wear jeans any more because of the constant pain in my thighs so I go around in long dresses a size too big. Yet I was always the T-shirt and jeans girl.

They refused to send me back to the gynae department for surgery, saying I was imagining it or it was IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) or something else.

I had to keep asking for scans; eventually an MRI scan found 13 cysts on one of my ovaries. Then I got to see a gynaecologist and was given injections to create an artificial menopause. So there I was at 22 years old and having hot flushes.

Last Christmas my granny came to my mother’s house and we were comparing our symptoms.

I am normally a happy person, but after being offered counselling (as they still said it was psychological) I met a girl where I work in student records.

She had endometriosis, gave me the name of her doctor and I was diagnosed.

Although the support group is made of up girls who are mainly a lot older, it helps to see people who have come through this and are now married and have kids.

My friends knew that I was unwell, although some people don’t really believe you.

I lost a boyfriend through all of this. We had a pretty good relationship until I started going through the menopause.

He was only 20 and it was all too grown up for him.

To contact the Belfast endometriosis support group tel: 07733 266 517 or log on to www.endometriosis-uk.org

be aware of the symptoms

Symptoms indicating endometriosis may include: chronic pelvic pain, pain during sex, extreme tiredness, painful bowel movements and spotting before a period.

After diagnosis, treatment involves surgery, laser treatment, treament of symptoms or hysterectomy as a last resort.

These celebrities suffer from endometriosis:

  • Julia Bradbury
  • Dolly Parton
  • Julieanne Hough
  • Padma Lakshmi
  • Susan Sarandon
  • Marilyn Monroe

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