Mindy Williamson speaks out
When Mindy Williamson was first diagnosed with uterine fibroids more than 20 years ago, she had no idea what they were or the toll they would take on her life. Now a well-known personality in the local media industry, Mindy is using her voice to speak out about the dilemma she faced as a young mother with a promising career, while at the same time confronting a challenge that put both her health and livelihood at risk.
When Mindy was pregnant with her son at the age of 27, an ultrasound revealed she had uterine fibroids, a common condition in women where non-cancerous tumors shrink and grow according to levels of estrogen and progesterone in the body. While uterine fibroids affect a large number of women in different patient populations, they differ in severity.
“Oftentimes women are unaware that they have fibroids because they vary in size and symptoms,” explains Dr. Robert Di Cecco, Mindy’s obstetrician/gynecologist at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC). “In the case of large fibroids, symptoms may include pain or pressure in the pelvis that can affect the bladder or rectum. They can occasionally be quite noticeable – in some women you can see a mass arising out of the pelvis.”
When Mindy still looked and felt like she was pregnant after giving birth, she knew something was wrong.
“The one fibroid was as large as a baby’s head and it felt funny,” she recalls. “After I had my son, it caused a lot of pain, and so much so that I’d be walking through the mall or going up Richmond Street and I’d be doubled over.”
While the pain was difficult to handle for a couple of days each month, she felt normal the rest of the time. The most definitive treatment for fibroids - a hysterectomy - proved too emotional a decision to make. When she would periodically seek medical attention, the treatment option did not fit her future plans.
“I would have ultrasounds and they would say, ‘it’s growing, you can have the surgery,’ and I would say ‘well no, I haven’t decided whether I’m going to have a baby again so for now, I’ll just suck it up.’”
It wasn’t just the potential of a growing family that concerned her. The demands of being a working, single mom did not allow for her to take the time off needed for the recovery process with such an invasive surgery.
“Having the surgery would have meant probably a 12-week recovery, and that just wasn’t in the cards for me,” she explains. “I’m in the entertainment industry, and if I step out for three months and somebody takes my place, the security for a working woman was a concern for me.”
For Mindy, the fibroids became more intrusive throughout her thirties. Episodes of pain grew to a week or two each month. This meant problems with digestion and carrying on with everyday activities. While she tried to maintain an active lifestyle, the fibroids made social and work-related functions more complicated.
“I remember I went on this canoe trip with friends of ours, an Easter paddle we do every year. I left the house hoping it would be okay, because I knew I was going to be hunched over in a canoe for the better part of five hours. And it was a really uncomfortable day,” she recalls.
It wasn’t until 2013 when Mindy was working as an instructor at Fanshawe College that she had had enough of the pain. As she showed a student’s family around the broadcast centre during an open house, she suddenly felt as though she had been stabbed in the pelvis.
“I actually looked down to see if I had walked into something and impaled myself because the pain just caught me off-guard,” she says.
Mindy went to the Emergency Department at LHSC’s Victoria Hospital and learned that in addition to the large fibroids, she had an ovarian cyst that had to be removed. She was referred to Dr. Di Cecco, who told her of an option that was previously unavailable for which she could be a potential candidate: robotic surgery.
Dr. Di Cecco explained to Mindy that her surgery could be facilitated using a robot that he would control at a surgeon’s console. By using a minimally invasive approach, a patient does not require a large abdominal incision, which cuts down on recovery time.
“With the potential of such a short recovery, patients are pretty excited,” says Dr. Di Cecco. “When they know that the alternative was potentially an abdominal incision, the fact that they are able to have this done is positive.”
The thought of robotic surgery didn't frighten Mindy. She actually felt excited at the prospect.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be Rosie Robot from the Jetsons coming in and cutting me up and stuff,” she laughs. “I trusted Dr. Di Cecco, and he just seemed excited at the prospect of his patients recovering so quickly.”
Though she was nervous before going into the operating room, Mindy credits the surgical team with making her feel relaxed. Her surgery took longer than expected due to the difficulty of removing such large fibroids. An hour after the surgery, Mindy was awake.
“You know how when you go to the gym for the first time in a long time, and you do way more ab crunches than you should? That was kind of what it felt like afterwards. But I went home the next morning.”
Within two days, she was working from her home business, and was able to return to her job at Fanshawe a week later. She was able to go to the gym again and see results. The pain that she had put up with for more than 20 years had vanished.
Speaking out about personal health experiences can be an emotional and overwhelming process. Mindy believes that sharing her story can help to break the silence and the stigma surrounding women’s health issues.
“I think a lot of women suffer in quiet because that’s traditionally been what we do,” she says. “I’m a girl with a big mouth in this city. When I talk I find that people sometimes listen to me. I think with the technologies and expertise we have available in London, more people ought to know about this and how great your life can be. If you have a gift, you should use it to give back to things that have been important to you. It’s part of what goes with having a voice.”