But the disorders sometimes are linked to fertility problems, and researchers also are beginning to realize that such symptoms can be a sign of serious diseases to come.
“Gynecological problems during the reproductive years may be a predictor of diseases, such as cancer, later in life,” said Barbara Cohn, a reproductive health scientist and director of Child Health and Development Studies at the Public Health Institute in Berkeley, Calif.
Endometriosis has been associated with an increased risk of some ovarian cancers. However, the risk remains small, according to a review published in Lancet Oncology in May. Women with endometriosis have a 1.5 percent lifetime chance of developing ovarian cancer compared with 1 percent in the general female population.
The research is less clear on a link between cancer and other gynecological diseases, such as uterine fibroids.
Lee was terrified that her fibroids and extreme menstrual periods were signs of cervical or ovarian cancer. Several doctors recommended she have her uterus removed – standard treatment for severe fibroids. But she refused.
“You wouldn’t cut your nose off because you got frequent nose bleeds,” said Lee. “No one seemed concerned with trying to figure out why I was having such heavy periods.”
Pesticides and other environmental chemicals may not have contributed to Lee’s gynecological problems, since other factors, such as age and genetic predisposition, also increase a woman’s risk.
Nevertheless, since leaving the Okanagan for Nova Scotia in 2010, Lee has seen a marked decrease in her symptoms. She now avoids processed foods and buys only organic produce. The fibroid is no longer growing. In fact, according to Lee, it has shrunk in size.
“I can no longer feel it, but I know it is still there,” she said. “I worry constantly what the health effects will be down the road.”
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.