“Unbearable Pain”: Ana’s Endometriosis Story

Ana G Herrera is the founder and CEO of Hormone University, and Glow by Hormone University. She created Hormone University as an educational platform to empower women about their hormone health and the genesis for the idea was rooted in her own experience of endometriosis, surgical menopause and hysterectomy. 

“I was lucky my doctor was ‘Old School'”

From her early twenties, Ana experienced painful, heavy periods. After a visit home to Spain, she happened to see her family OBGYN while poorly during her trip. “I was lucky – he was ‘old school’ and after listening to my experience and symptoms, performed an ultrasound scan and spotted the endometriosis immediately” she explains. 

It takes, on average, 7 years to diagnose endometriosis and diagnosis via ultrasound is a rarity. In the US, at least 2 in 10 women suffer from endometriosis, but with long diagnostic pathways that are hard for women to navigate (and in the US, extremely costly), the number may be even higher. As Ana and I chat, we mull over the reality of even this shocking statistic between us, because the data gap is so stark when it comes to endometriosis, in particular. 

During her mid to late 20s, Ana had a successful career in the beauty industry. Working for esteemed brands such as John Frieda in senior roles she travelled extensively and managed pressurised responsibilities such as their European launch.

However, behind her glittering career, she was grappling with intense pain as the realisation that her diagnosis was the start of a ‘hellish’ few years hit hard. 

The importance of prioritising your health

I ask her how she coped with work through these years, and she explains that she often felt unable to discuss her condition with colleagues or even the female head of HR at the time. Instead, she pushed herself often through pain and fainting. “I had to cancel flights because I was fainting and unable to board. I was taking a crazy amount of painkillers to cope, sometimes every two hours.” 

On one occasion, whilst in London, Ana was unwell and fainted whilst getting a coffee in Starbucks. “I took an Ibuprofen! I should have gone home and looked after myself – but I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it and so I went to work and carried on, whilst bleeding heavily.” We both agree that far too often, in typically patriarchal, traditional workplaces women’s ‘problems’ are often dismissed – especially pre-Covid where office culture was still prevalent and pressurised work environments the norm. “My advice to women now is to always look after yourself,” Ana says, reflecting on her own experience. 

“My friends were an incredible support”ANA'S ENDOMETRIOSIS STORY

While we chat, Ana is open, candid and warm, and it’s clear that for someone who is innately sociable that a condition like endometriosis would be particularly difficult to manage as she explains that even sitting in the cinema was difficult and painful. “My friends were incredible. They would all come round to mine with food, entertain me, and keep me going through some of those times where I couldn’t leave the sofa.” 

For the same reason, travel and even exercise became difficult, sadly Ana had to stop making plans because the toll on her body was just too much. Fortunately, she continued with yoga, and found a love for Kundalini. “I’m a huge advocate of it, as it nurtures my mind and body and meditation has been part of my healing process.”

The emotional toll of surgery and unbearable pain

After trying alternatives such as IUD (“unbearable pain!”) surgery became the only viable option for treatment. Ana embarked on a journey that would lead to six surgeries in total; five for endometriosis and one to remove fibroids.

As Ana talks through the surgeries and pain she experienced, she becomes tearful. “I’m sorry, I get very emotional. I was like, why am I living like this? I find it hard to relive the emotions then, because I remember thinking that I don’t want to live anymore, it was no life, just horrible.”

After years of interventions, Ana found herself back on a plane to Spain to see her family and it was during the flight that she knew something was very wrong. “I was taking painkillers the whole time. After we landed, I went straight to hospital and they took me into surgery immediately. They warned me that I needed a hysterectomy, and my colon might be so damaged I’d require a resection, which I was terrified about.” 

It’s clear as we talk that this is particularly difficult for Ana to talk about. “I felt that my feminine side was being taken away.” She becomes tearful again, as I agree with her that from my own experience of hysterectomy, it’s something that women aren’t counselled sufficiently through. “I felt a sense of bereavement”, she explains. “The first time in my life that I had therapy was after that surgery. I was dealing with some other personal things too, but the therapist said to me [about the endometriosis], ‘You’ve been through so much, you need to process what’s happened’, and they were right.”

After the surgery, Ana’s recovery surprised her doctors. “It was seven hours long and my entire abdomen had to be cut open in order for them to do what they needed to do. But after I woke up, I had this sense of ‘I’m going to overcome this’. I found strength because the biggest thing for me was to just not be in pain any longer.“

Gently, I ask Ana about how she dealt with the loss of her fertility, both physically and emotionally. “Yeah, it was really tough,” she tearfully says. “I think the hardest part is to accept your destiny, in a way. I remember looking into freezing my eggs, but I didn’t go through with it and I did regret that afterwards.”

Growing up in a large family, and one of four children (she has three brothers), Ana had expected that one day she would have a family and be a mother. “I’ve been so privileged and lucky to come from such an amazing family. The hardest part was accepting that I wouldn’t have that. People are so quick to say “why don’t you adopt?” – you know, it’s a very different story.”

We agree that even with the best of intentions, the flippant comments made to women about their fertility are far too often insensitive at best and intrusive at worst. “I would like for people to think before they ask questions like that”, Ana says. “We need to educate people that even if there is no bad intention in their question, it’s not okay to ask or say things like, ‘why don’t you have kids?’. I never thought my life would turn out like this, and it’s been hard to accept.”

Surgical menopause “was like falling off a cliff”

Of course, after a total hysterectomy the reality of surgical menopause quickly set in. As someone who hadn’t experienced depression before, Ana was bewildered by the symptoms. “It was like falling off a cliff. I was a wreck, tearful and so sad. I had crazy hot flashes and night sweats.”

Ana started to take HRT to manage the debilitating menopause symptoms, but soon after developed a pain in her leg that turned out to be a blood clot that had formed, a rare but very serious complication of HRT.  Consequently, she had to stop the hormone therapy. “I felt such a sense of injustice. Why didn’t I know all of this before?”

Given everything she has been through, I ask her whether she gets frustrated with the misconceptions around endometriosis. “Yes, very much so. Most people don’t realise that it is a disease that infiltrates major organs, and that it’s been found all over the body – from the skin, to eyes and even lungs. It’s such an under researched condition, and the assumption that it’s a reproductive condition just isn’t true.” 

Despite this, Ana says she feels things are changing since Covid. We agree that social media has played a huge part, alongside celebrities such as Amy Schumer, in shaping the conversation and understanding about the disease in the mainstream. I ask her if she’s hopeful for the future of endometriosis, and she is – but says, “What we still need is funding for research, but importantly an understanding of the objectives of the research. I also hope that more women will be involved in research to help shape it for women suffering and who need answers.”

The mission to empower and educate

Ana’s passion to help empower and educate women is central to the mission of Hormone University. “I was so desperate for a solution for myself, and I couldn’t find anything that worked. So I created it.” 

Frustrated with the lack of information about her own body, gynaecology and hormone health, Ana created Hormone University and the first product, Menopause SOS. Soon after, a product range including Period SOS and Super Rich Magnesium Lotion followed. “I only use Menopause SOS, and now I don’t have night sweats, no bloating, no hot flashes!” 

The only symptom Ana struggled to manage was vaginal atrophy. “For me, vaginal dryness was hell and the only symptom that prevailed, so again I found a solution that would not only help others, but would directly manage my own issues and created the Intimate Hydrator which has been a gamechanger. Life changing. Completely.”

ANA'S ENDOMETRIOSIS STORYI ask Ana what she would suggest to women who have recently been diagnosed with endometriosis. She pauses, before saying, “Without any doubt, learn as much as you can about it. Read, educate yourself. Be curious. And seek out a specialist who understands endometriosis properly. Learn about the role of diet and good nutrition as medicine. That’s really important.”

She’s an advocate of alternative therapies, such as Kundalini yoga and breathwork, too. “It helped me meditate, finally. I can’t do silent meditation, and the routine and movement of Kundalini helps me to focus my practice. Breathwork really is a gamechanger for immunity, too.” She’s a huge fan of fasting, and fasts for 5 days once a year. Finally, she recommends therapy. “Talking therapies are so important. No one understands unless they have been through it and processing the pain, surgery, and trauma to your body is important.”

Ana has a meeting to run to, so we wrap up our chat. She tells me that she’s being honoured with an award in Spain for the work she’s done with Hormone University and Glow’s innovation, and how it made her emotional when she was told she had won it. It’s profoundly clear that this is what drives her the most. “This is my baby, you know. You guys,” she gestures, arms open. “I’ve accepted [what’s happened for me], and that’s probably the toughest. 

And then at some point, you’re like, okay, we will impact new women, I hope, so that they can have the chance to feel great, advocate for themselves and have a family if they wish to.”

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