Go Deeper

Endometri-what? THE Female Trouble

Posted September 8th, 2011

As I flipped through the 2011 Philly Fringe catalogue this summer, Cathy Quigley’s show Female Trouble almost didn’t catch my eye. To me, Female Trouble is a 1974 John Waters movie, a Charm City roller girls team or a reference that is bound to be offensive when it comes out of the mouth of a man (sorry, men). Ironically, this Female Trouble is the Fringe show I am most looking forward to seeing during the Festival this year because, as I found out, it’s the one I can relate to the most.

There are fifteen female performers, ranging in age from 18 to 50, in Cathy’s production, a multimedia performance about endometriosis. Endometri-what? (That, coincidently is the working title of my book about the disease.) This disease affects 10-15% of all women and is one of the top causes of infertility in women in this country. Normally, a women’s uterus will collect and grow tissue to prep itself for a baby and if said woman doesn’t become pregnant, it will release the endometrial lining that has formed. (This is her period.) When a woman has endometriosis, that endometrial tissue not only attaches itself to the uterus walls but also outside the uterus. Most commonly, it will create cysts on the ovaries but in more extreme cases, it can attach to other organs like the bowels, the intestines, even the lungs. The inflammation of the tissue not only affects the way the organ works but also creates a great deal of pain and fatigue in the woman suffering from endometriosis. Forty percent of all women who have endometriosis are infertile.

“This is a show about the patient,” Cathy told me when we spoke. “And while it focuses on endometriosis, it is about women’s health in general. My goal is to teach women to become their own activists when it comes to their health.”

After the jump: The challenges of diagnoses, and the intersection of drama, culture, and fertility.

Cathy doesn’t have to convince me. My endometriosis knowledge is not because of pre-interview research. I was diagnosed at age twenty one and since then, I’ve had two surgeries and even on days where I’m sure, to you, I look fine, I’m probably not. Endometriosis is not fatal but the pain is life altering. While learning how to decrease my own external symptoms of the disease, I saw nine doctors in six weeks. This is not uncommon, as Cathy confirmed.

“When I was in my twenties,” Cathy told me. “I suffered a lot of bizarre medical issues. My period was irregular and painful. I had a lot of stomach pain.” After two years of uncomfortable tests and probing by doctors, a nurse practitioner asked Cathy if she had ever heard of endometriosis.

“Ten to fifteen of women have this disease,” Cathy said. “And yet, it took two years for a medical professional to mention it [to me].”

Cathy became obsessed, something she and I have in common even though she doesn’t suffer from the disease. Laposcopic surgery showed she didn’t have the disease but she did have a ruptured cyst on her ovary. Once a surgeon cleaned that up and Cathy changed her diet, she felt much better. This is an illness that few doctors know about, and that has no cure. While wome speculate on the causes — and I find that those speculations come more from patients than from doctors -– there is no concrete explanation of where it comes from. 176,000,000 women suffer from this disease and yet, it has an average nine-year diagnosis rate: it takes nine years from the time a woman tells her doctor she has the symptoms of it to the time where a medical professional actually diagnoses her as having the disease.

Cathy and I talked about how endometriosis is a “silent” disease. It doesn’t have 5K races or marathons. It doesn’t have a designated ribbon. Mention it and women might have heard of it, or know someone who has it, but few can tell you exactly what it is or how it works.

While I believe that, among other things, that little is known because our society is so uncomfortable with talking about sex (one of the most common symptoms of endometriosis is painful sex for the woman with the disease), Cathy also thinks women’s relationship with fertility has a lot to do with it.

Cathy became interested in fertility while working on Female Troubles, the first version of which was her senior project at Montclair State University.

“In Western Culture,” Cathy says, “Women are obsessed with having a child. From a very young age, females are conditioned to have children. We are given dolls when we are kids and we are told to babysit when we are in high school. It is not always an easy thing to conceive a child and women don’t talk about that. It’s almost a taboo. But women are obsessed with it. You can see a Viagra commercial every time you turn on the television.” But no one is trying to sell you a drug to prevent your female parts from disintegrating during the next commercial break.

Her view on fertility is only one of Cathy’s sentiments that won me over. It is also something I can relate to. As an artist myself, I know that there are ways to create or give birth in today’s world that have nothing to do with giving birth to and raising a child however; as a victim of the disease (endometrial lesions were so heavy that they caused my fallopian tubes to fold over on themselves), infertility will always make me feel biologically broken.

“My hope is to be able to tour this piece to colleges and other spots where I can raise awareness about the disease,” Cathy said. “I’m not an ignorant person. I am educated and knowledgeable but until I dug deep into the research, I hadn’t even heard of the disease. With this piece, I want to raise awareness, explore why doctors know very little about women’s health and create an open dialogue to discuss these ideas.”

Female Trouble runs at 8:00 pm on Saturday, September 10 at 8:00 pm and at 2:00 pm on Sunday, September 11 at the Painted Art Bride Center, 230 Vine Street. $14.

–Jennifer Leah Peck