I tried to be nice

Lupron Therapy for Endometriosis

I am utterly frustrated with myself because leading up to this blog article I have been able to convey information with an unbiased perspective, articulate both negative and positive outcomes of research, and have educated those who are less informed than I am. But this next article I have to write, I struggle to do with such poise. In fact, every bit of information that I want to pass along is in honor of those who have not found their voice yet; in honor of those who have not yet come to this crossroad; in honor of those who have spent years informing others and I can now echo their message.

If you or a loved one have been challenged with endometriosis, you know that inevitably the one symptom that has brought you to the doctor’s office or the Emergency room is pain. Pain is something that – with the exception of a few people – every mammal on this earth feels. We were built to be able to feel pain as a sign of danger. All of us can relate to pain as an external stimulus, but those of us with endometriosis have discovered that pain can also be caused by our own bodies attacking ourselves; something all autoimmune sufferers have in common. Both the heightened baseline at which you begin to tolerate pain after so many years of suffering, exacerbated by the mere fact that women are built to tolerate more pain, have resulted in centuries of ignored diagnoses, ugly looks, disregard, and ignorance to the root cause. If your doctor is truly ignorant they may send you home with painkillers (see below). If they are somewhat aware of endometriosis they may start you on birth control (see below) and if they are smart (and compassionate) they will refer you to a gynecologist or even better, an endometriosis specialist.

If I have learned anything over the years, communicating with so many women with endometriosis, no two women have walked the same medical path. So with brevity I will explain the various options that may be presented to you:

  1. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as advil or Naproxen. Sometimes when you approach your uninformed doctor about pelvic pain or lady issues they will start with a prescription of NSAIDs. Be careful not to take them too often, but definitely keep taking them if you need to. Maybe at the beginning this is all you will need.
  2. Birth Control – if you visit a doctor that remotely understands endometriosis they have at least been educated about the potential impact of elevated hormones that play a role in menstrual cramping. As such they tend to dole out prescriptions for birth control like candy. You will find that – upon trial and error en route to finding the right birth control – this may be an effective treatment.
  3. If the typical birth control containing both chemical forms of estrogen (estradiol) and progesterone (progestin) don’t work for you, your doctor may prescribe a progestin-only birth control to eradicate the production of estrogen altogether.  This is what I am currently on. According to a study written in 2014 by Wee-Stekly et al, A randomized clinical trial indicated that oral dienogest (Visanne) [was] more effective than a placebo in reducing pelvic pain in patients with a diagnosis of endometriosis. In combination with either form of birth control your doctor may also recommend taking your birth control continuously to abolish your cycle and avoid any peaks and valleys of sex hormones circulating in your body.

But this is where things get dangerous. If you get to this point and you are not already in the hands of a well educated, endometriosis specialist (NOTE: a Gynecologist is NOT an endometriosis specialist) you need to get one! There are three well known outcomes that could be presented to you. Here they are:

Positive – your specialist has now decided it is worth the risks of surgery to go in and do an excision surgery. If they are recommending an ablation you need to find another specialist. Consider excision like plucking, versus ablation which is like shaving; in the latter the root is still there. Having the right surgery will at least put you in reset mode if/until lesions begin to grow back, or adhesions start to form. Nonetheless this is a very positive outcome! Furthermore for women who are looking to conceive, a 2015 paper from Rizk et al concluded that

“In women with minimal and mild endometriosis, surgical excision or ablation of endometriosis is recommended as first line with doubling the pregnancy rate. In patients with moderate and severe endometriosis surgical excision also is recommended as first line. In patients who failed to conceive spontaneously after surgery, assisted reproduction is more effective than repeat surgery.”

Neutral – An increased rate of hysterectomies are being performed on women suffering from endometriosis, and of all reproductive ages. While a hysterectomy may improve the pain associated with menstruation,  this option should only be prescribed by the patient, after long hard deliberation, and of sound mind of someone who has completed their journey of child bearing. In a recent documentary produced by EndoWhat, (with the same movie title) specialists resounded the notion that if endometrial lesions are not also removed with the reproductive organs, endometriosis and its symptoms could still persist.

Removing the ovaries, fallopian tubes and uterus of a woman with Endometriosis will not cure the disease, because the endometrial lesions are elsewhere in her body. Endometriosis responds to estrogen, and even when a woman is no longer in possession of her ovaries, estrogen is produced in small amounts by her liver, adrenal glands and breast tissue. Phytoestrogens are also present in our environment. – Abby Norman, author of Ask me about my uterus

While this may be a solution for some (and quite frankly Im still trying to get more information from those who have undergone the procedure) it may not be the best option at the get-go.

Negative – this is where I have to take a pause, and write with elegance. More and more doctors (though the numbers should be going down) are offering their patients  a drug therapy called Leuprorelin (also known as Lupron). Leuprorelin was initially released on the market in 1985 as a drug therapy for advanced prostate cancer, administered as an injection. The mechanism of action is such that it acts like gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) hormone by binding to its receptors to (over)produce two hormones – luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone(FSH) – which are involved in reproduction. However, because so much of these hormones are circulating in the system two things happen: 1) your body feels worse because these hormones stimulate increased production of those two sex hormones (estrogen and progesterone) that play a role in pain but then 2) the gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) receptors shut down because of over-stimulation and then all the other cascading hormones produced downstream are also shut off. This is the optimal end result of Leuprorelin; to shut down the production of sex hormones. Prostate cancer is powered by testosterone, so  shutting down production of this hormone is an effective treatment for this modality.

Given that the drug ALSO shuts down estrogen, in 1990 the drug was remarketed for the treatment of endometriosis. In this interview, makers of Leuprorelin commented “The most common side effects observed with Lupron Depot are those seen in menopause — hot flashes, mood swings, headaches and vaginal dryness. All side effects are reversible upon cessation of treatment” **for those of you taking Lupron, you can burst out laughing now**

Here is the reality. Lupron and all other (GnRH) stimulators should be administered with a number of ‘add backs’ – which according to Abbvie (the number one seller of Lupron) “Add-back is a daily pill that you take while on LUPRON DEPOT therapy to add back a small amount of the hormone progestin, which can help you manage certain side effects, without interfering with the way LUPRON DEPOT works.” What they fail to tell you is that along with the list of 10 side effects noted in the brochure that is provided to you, they advise you to go to the website and run through the full laundry list of side effects. More notably, these side effects are life altering, more severe than indicated by any prescribing doctor or Lupron care team, and irreversible. For instance on both their website and their brochure they do note that: Thinning of bones may occur during therapy with LUPRON DEPOT alone, which may not be completely reversible in all women… LUPRON DEPOT may cause harm to your unborn childSeizures have been observed in patients taking LUPRON DEPOT…Depression may worsen while taking norethindrone acetate. Patients who have a history of depression should be carefully observed during treatment. Here is my favourite though…

The most common side effects of LUPRON DEPOT included hot flashes/sweats, headache/migraine, decreased libido (interest in sex), depression/emotional lability (changes in mood), dizziness, nausea/vomiting, pain, vaginitis, and weight gain. These are not all of the possible side effects of LUPRON DEPOT. Talk to your doctor for medical advice about side effects.

This information was presented to me in full during my last visit to my endometriosis specialist and it was recommended to me that I fill out the forms during this sitting, set up my insurance for coverage and order the vial to be shipped to my local drug store (to be brought with me to my next appointment). I asked – for clarity – if she could instead refer me to a specialist who was comfortable removing the endometrial lesions she left on my diaphragm as this is where I was experiencing the most pain, but she said without a diagnostic trial of Lupron she did not feel a referral was necessary; that it was too premature. So I complied, filled out the paperwork, and went home feeling like I had just done something terrible. Then I did what I always do – I reached out to my endo sisters and was flooded with emotions upon hearing their stories about Lupron. The side effects, the impact on daily life, on relationships, on jobs, on childbearing or tending to loved ones. It was a resounding ‘NO’ on taking Lupron with a few sprinklings of positive or neutral reviews. As you can see from the graphic below, so kindly shared by endographics.org the positive reviews to exist and I want to make sure everyone understands this may be the right drug for you… But I want more than anything in the world for people to listen to their bodies, listen to their hearts, and do what is best for them! Many many pages exist out their on the lawsuits, deaths, and outcomes of Lupron. I am not here to go into that with you today (though tomorrow is another day). For now, I just want to bring this drug to your attention so that you are empowered the next time a doctor wants to order this for you. Find your voice, know your rights.

Thank you to Endographics.org for allowing me to share this image which so clearly depicts the details of Lupron (in a much better way than I have).

You can read more about endometriosis history here

For a much more thorough review on Lupron I suggest you make a pot of coffee and read HormonesMatter

Is it rare or medium rare?

Back in 2012 when I had my first surgery to diagnose and treat endometriosis, my surgeon was able to ablate the lesions from my Fallopian tubes, but he was not comfortable working with the lesions on my bladder. For five years these implants continued to grow and spread, until my recent surgery in 2018 where endometriosis was excised from my bladder, colon, and ribs. Sadly, there were implants on my diaphragm that my surgeon did not feel comfortable removing as she was not trained in working with the thoracic cavity. In these cases of thoracic endometriosis, only a handful of doctors in the world are skilled enough to work side by side with a thoracic surgeon to carefully ablate the implants using a technique called VATS (video assisted thoracoscopic surgery). Thus, after waiting and suffering 5 years between surgeries to remove the endometriosis (for a total of 20 years) there were still residual implants left inside my body that I knew was going to spread eventually.

A few months after my surgery I went into the hospital with excruciating abdominal pain. Upon admitting me into the ER my blood work revealed elevated lipases at 2000. A repeat blood work showed the same spike and so I was admitted as an in patient to continue doing more tests. That story ended quite quickly as is the beast of the medical system: two doctors claimed I had pancreatitis but the more senior doctor disagreed and sent me home. I suffered – and continue to suffer – 2 whole months with this chronic debilitating pain. It so turned out that after around 7 weeks I started to exhibit symptoms of a colitis flare and was going to pull through at home until I had these weird heart pains which were new for me and fairly frightening to say the least. Skipping ahead to when I got to the ER, my lipases were at 4000 and this alarming number enticed the doctors to admit me once again, even though this wasn’t what I came into the hospital for. Back on the pancreatitis train we went, proceeding with blood work, a chest X-ray, fecal testing, two endoscopes and the list goes on. While my lipases continued to bob all over the place during my 7 day stay at the hospital, my colitis symptoms subsided and the mystery continued. This visit brought on the interest of the general medicine doctors and the gastroenterologists who ruled out acute pancreatitis (I don’t drink and I don’t have a gallbladder to form gallstones: the two main causes of acute pancreatitis). They failed to fully rule out autoimmune pancreatitis as my IGg4 levels were normal (as is the case with type 2, not type 1). They also failed to rule out EPI – exocrine pancreatic insufficiency – a disease in which your pancreas lacks the fundamental enzymes to break down foods into basic nutrients and thus your body does not absorb nutrients from foods you eat.

Along the way I had suggested that since none of the scans showed any abnormalities in the pancreas, any blocks or any stones, that perhaps this could be endometriosis on the pancreas, making it angry, and causing it to spike in lipases. The theory was not thrown out. In fact, the two teams of doctors thought it best to bring in the Gynaecological team for a consult to see how plausible this could be. First came the residents who stated this was an interesting theory although the endometriosis on organs such as the pancreas and liver were too rare. I begged the question “is it more rare to have it on my organs or on my diaphragm?” – needless to say the answer was not provided. The second step was to ask the attending doctor what he thought about this theory. Instead of having a voice he played the politically correct card and deferred to my endometriosis specialist who unbeknownst to me is the head of gynaecology at the hospital. Here is what she said:

I have never seen endometriosis on the pancreas in all my years of practice and I strongly believe this cannot be the case. She would be written up in a case study. I have told the patient that she should be on Lupron to use as a diagnostic tool to determine whether the pain she is having is in fact associated with endometriosis. I now, however, think that we should hold off on lupron as it could confound any other finding for this cause of pain, and so we will back out of this case until the other departments have run up against a wall,… and then we can bring lupron back on the table.

That, my friends, was the last time I heard from my endometriosis specialist aka my quarterback. I was livid. I was exhausted. I felt denied and betrayed all at once. The other piece of this story is that she refused to refer me to THE ONE AND ONLY doctor in Canada who is qualified to remove endo using VATS until I performed the lupron diagnostic. She never came back onto the case, and I fired her. Because, I can!

Today I continue to suffer from the abdominal pain, in the comfort of my own home, and have a few extra tests booked as the doctors are curious and excited to determine what is going on with my body. I cannot say I was denied proper care because the doctors at the Vancouver General Hospital have always gone above and beyond. What I can say is that while endometriosis on my pancreas may sound like a hilarious and rare probability, I have since been in touch with a handful of endo sisters who have either suspected or confirmed endometriosis on their pancreas and/or liver. So again, I ask you, is it really that rare, or is it medium rare?

Endometriosis is a disease that effects 1 in every 10 women. Some say it is genetic; others attribute the disease to early life trauma, and in some cases we hear cockamamie theories such as “women bring this upon themselves by having sex too early”. Women at the age of 14+ begin seeing a gynaecologist for yearly Pap smears. These doctors are specialized in the reproductive system but so few of them understand endometriosis. There are highly specialized endometriosis surgeons who have spent a great deal of time understanding how this disease spreads and furthermore how to eradicate the endometriomas from organs and spaces outside the womb. These surgeons, albeit experts in the field, may or may not be able to work with certain organs such as the bladder, the colon and in some cases even the diaphragm. Even worse, a very small number of endometriosis surgeons are trained in excision surgery; they continue to perform ablation surgeries that simply cauterize the lesions. The point is there are very few resources dedicated to better understanding this disease, and very few professionals who are specialized in the field of treating endometriosis.

If you are looking for proper care for your endometriosis please ask the questions you need to, to determine which piece of the puzzle your doctor is able to take care of. If your gynaecologist does not know how to treat endometriosis make sure they refer you to an endometriosis specialist. If a surgeon wants to perform surgery to treat the endometriosis make sure they are conducting an excision surgery – this is the only type of surgery that will remove the lesions and give your body a fighting chance.