By Sola Ogundipe
Millions of women in Nigeria and across the world battle a common, often unspoken medical condition known as uterine fibroids that practically dictate their lives.
Uterine fibroids are benign growths that commonly develop in the uterus. They can range from the size of a pea to a watermelon. Although some women never experience symptoms at all, others struggle to get through the tasks of daily life.
Heavy and prolonged menstruation between or during periods, anemia, which can lead to fatigue, pain during intercourse, frequent urination, constipation, pain in the pelvis or lower back, Increased menstrual cramping and stomach swelling among others.
Women are often diagnosed with uterine fibroids during their reproductive years and are considered at increased risk when a close relative such as mother or sister has fibroids.
For such women, being diagnosed with uterine fibroids is a huge complication and discomfort, causing them untold hardship ranging from unbearable pain to anemia which causes fatigue from heavy blood loss.
Medical experts say about 70 to 80 percent of women will develop uterine fibroids by the age of 50. Even then, approximately 28 percent of women have never heard of fibroids, and 19 percent inaccurately believe that fibroids are cancerous and require a hysterectomy (fibroid removal surgery).
Even after suffering for years from the effects of fibroids, some women may still believe that their fibroid symptoms are just normal issues that many women experience.
One explanation for this is because women are often told that period pain is a normal part of being a woman. And as a result, they don’t seek help.
For some of women, uterine fibroids may be silent, but for others, like 38-year-old Patricia Omoke, the abnormal growths cause unbearable, life-altering symptoms. Naturally, women are aware that painful, unmanageable menstrual periods are not the norm.
Patricia, a single, administrative officer who hails from Ebonyi state, lived with uterine fibroids for several years but it was not until 2018 when she was clinically diagnosed that she actively began searching for solution.
Pain and heavy, prolonged bleeding are the most common complaints from fibroid patients. So many women suffer these but not many seriously seek a remedy until the symptoms become unbearable.
“My period brought cramps so bad, I was out of action days each month, I also struggled with heavy bleeding,” said Patricia in a chat with Saturday Vanguard.
“It was confirmed that I had uterine fibroid after I had an investigation some two years or so ago. My periods had got very heavy for a couple of days each month and when I went to the hospital to find out why, they told me I had fibroids.”
But there was a snag. Every doctor told Patricia that surgery was the only solution, however, scared of open surgery, so she rejected every one of the recommendations.
Patricia was hesitant because, like most Nigerians, she had a pathological fear of invasive surgery. So, out of this fear, she continued to cope with the bouts of period pain and abnormal bleeding.
“Every doctor recommended surgery, but I had never had surgery, infactbI was afraid and continued to seek alternative treatment possibilities. I was hoping for a miracle.”
Patricia continued to feel the fatigue and the pain uterine fibroidsveven as she pursued her dream of an effective, non-surgical treatment.
“Ever since I did my first scan in 2018, I began looking for solution. Since I do not like surgery, I did other things like taking supplements, and searched online for suitable options. Along the way this year, I got to know about a procedure called High Intensity Focused Ultrasound, HIFU.”
According to Patricia, the HIFU procedure – a non-invasive procedure that utilizes real-time ultrasound and high-intensity ultrasound waves for removal of uterine fibroids – was new in Nigeria and was being offered only at Nordica Fibroid Care Centre, Lagos. In fact, no one had ever undergone it locally in the country.
“With HIFU, there is no surgery, no incisions, no pain, no bleeding and no complications during or after the procedure. It utilizes heat to destroy fibroid tissue but does not damage nearby tissue.”
Saturday Vanguard gathered that the HIFU procedure was first introduced in 2002 in the University of Oxford and has been successfully established in 28 countries and regions with over 150, 000 cases of benign and malignant tumours successfully treated. The Nordica HIFU Centre in Nigeria is the first in West Africa and the third in Africa.
According to Patricia, she got to know about HIFU through a publicity and enlightenment campaign that was promoted on the social media by the Nordica Fibroid Care Centre in which it advertised an offer of an introductory session for three eligible women to undergo non-invasive fibroid treatment completely free of charge.
For Patricia it was the opportunity of a lifetime and she wasted no time. She applied for the offer and to her surprise she was picked as one of the three lucky women shortlisted to benefit. Also to her delight, she emerged as the first Beneficiary, so if anyone calls her the face of HIFU in Nigeria, she would not mind. In fact she would be proud of the title.
“ I did the first scan and it confirmed the fibroid and I eventually went for the treatment on June 25, 2021. I cannot forget the experience. Naturally I was anxious and scared being the first person but once I signed the consent form, I just put trust in God and went through the usual process of getting prepared.”
Patricia prepared for a long, tedious session, but to her surprise, the actual process did not last beyond one hour and five minutes.
“I didn’t even know when the procedure was done. I was actually asking one of the Healthcare personnel when the procedure was starting.
“ I had been made to understand that I should be prepared to withstand temperature of 60 degrees or higher and I was preparing for that, only to be told that the procedure had been completed and it was successful. I couldn’t believe it but I was so happy. It was a wonderful experience.”
Before the procedure, Patricia had been educated about the HIFU process. She was told that the treatment actually kills the fibroid.
“It doesn’t bring the fibroid out, there is nothing like cutting or scraping, the fibroid is killed by the heat and over time, the dead fibroid is passed out or absorbed by the body. It depends on the position of the fibroid. The one that is in the system is passed out, while the one in the muscle is absorbed by the system. I have not had any complications.
“After the surgery, the first thing that I noticed was that a persistent back pain I had been feeling had disappeared. As soon as I got up from the table, I discovered that I didn’t feel the pain anymore.
“ The second thing that I observed was that I wasn’t feeling the fibroid itself again. Prior to the surgery, I was feeling the fibroid, but now afterwards, I no longer feel it while breathing. Also, here is no discolouration on my skin from the laser.
“ I appreciate Dr Ajayi and the entire Nordica HIFU team for giving me the privilege of not only benefiting from this novel procedure, but being the first beneficiary in Nigeria. I used to think that in Nigeria if you don’t have money, something like this would never get to you, but now I know better, thanks to Nordica Lagos. Other women need to benefit, so I’m going to keep talking about this.”
According to Dr Abayomi Ajayi, the Medical Director Nordica Fibroid Care Centre, Lagos, HIFU eliminates the need for surgery.
“ Recovery time is short, the patient is monitored for a couple of hours can go home same day and return to work within 24 hours. There is no blood loss or tissue or organ damage.
“ The risk of complications is low and injury to organs or use of anesthesia is minimal. Unlike other treatments for fibroid, HIFU preserves fertility and women are able to have normal pregnancies and conceive after treatment.
“We know that people are generally scared of surgery, I have been following this technology (HIFU) for about 10 years since it evolved and I see that a great number of women that are living with uterine fibroid are too scared to do anything about it when they are given the option of invasive surgery.
“ Sometimes I don’t blame them because anesthetic issues are many. It’s not that our doctors in Nigeria are not good but it is the challenges with the support system in hospitals that is the main issue, it usually fails the doctors.
“We have been trying to see how we can save our women from the complications of invasive surgery which sometimes ends in death. When a woman dies in the household, it is a serious issue, so many things are involved, but I’m sure that we will be able to save one or two women with uterine fibroids from this ordeal and then improve their quality of life,” Ajayi remarked.
Although surgery is scary, the thought of losing the uterus is scarier, but with the debut of HIFU, there is renewed hope through non-invasive solution for women struggling with fibroids as it works by burning off the fibroid without harming or affecting the surrounding tissues, and at cost comparable to normal surgery.
For women going through challenge of uterine fibroids Patricia’s message is that now that there is treatment without surgery available through HIFU, their best bet is to go for it.