A painful struggle: Dealing with endometriosis in the North

One in ten women have endometriosis, according to The Endometriosis Network Canada.

'I didn’t have a lot of help from the healthcare system up north,' said Lisa Pelchat

Lisa Pelchat was living in Norman Wells, N.W.T. when her endometriosis symptoms flared. She had a hard time getting diagnosed and accessing treatment. (Submitted by Lisa Pelchat)

Lisa Pelchat was living in Norman Wells, N.W.T. about five years ago when she was trying to get pregnant for the fourth time.

But after going off of birth control, she said she began experiencing unusual symptoms.

"Extreme abdominal pain, especially like ovarian pain, back pain, pain into my legs," said Pelchat. "I would have a hard time going to the bathroom, like crying going to the bathroom."

When she went to see a nurse, Pelchat said she was told it was probably bad period pain and that her symptoms were normal.

While she didn't know it at the time, Pelchat had endometriosis, an often painful medical condition that occurs when tissue similar to the uterus lining — the endometrium — grows outside of the uterus, according to The Endometriosis Network of Canada.

One in ten women — and in rare cases men — have endometriosis, according to the network. Symptoms can include fertility issues, gastrointestinal and bladder problems, and fatigue.

Not everyone has heard of the condition, which is why March is endometriosis awareness month. Endometriosis can also be difficult to get diagnosed and treated, especially for those living in more remote communities.

Challenges getting diagnosed

"I didn't have a lot of help from the healthcare system up north," Pelchat said.

In Norman Wells, like many northern communities, there is a nursing centre and a doctor who visits each month. This was challenging, Pelchat said, as it meant the doctor didn't always know her history.

Pelchat said she struggled to get prescription pain medication. It took about six months before she was referred to an ob-gyn in Yellowknife, where she was told she likely had endometriosis.

While Pelchat could have had surgery in Yellowknife, it wasn't the type of surgery she wanted. When she found a specialist in Calgary instead, she was told the territory wouldn't cover the costs since she was offered treatment locally.

According to the N.W.T. Health and Social Services Authority, there are three ob-gyns in the territory who can diagnose and offer common treatments for endometriosis. People can see them in Yellowknife or at travel clinics in Fort Smith, Inuvik or Hay River.

If treatment is not available in the territory and is deemed necessary, patients are referred to the nearest southern medical centre, according to the health authority. Depending on the eligibility of patients, the N.W.T. medical travel program helps cover the costs of travel, accommodation and meals.

Awareness of condition improving

Dr. Paul Yong is a gynecologist at the Centre for Pelvic Pain and Endometriosis, at BC Women's Hospital.

Dr. Paul Yong is a gynecologist at the Centre for Pelvic Pain and Endometriosis, at BC Women’s Hospital. (Submitted by BC Women's Hospital)

Yong said awareness about endometriosis is improving and while symptoms like painful periods have historically been taken less seriously, that's starting to change.

"Painful menstrual cramps, painful sexual activity, other pelvic pain is as important a symptom to me as if someone described chest pain or shortness of breath or lower back pain," he said.

But Yong said there is a need for earlier diagnosis of endometriosis.

"There's too long of a lag ... between when the symptoms are starting and the diagnosis," he said. "And I think that's universal."

Yong said he hopes things keep improving and that people feel comfortable sharing their symptoms with healthcare professionals.

'People need to be aware'

Despite the challenges she's faced, Pelchat said she's happy she found a specialist.

Now she and her family are living in Alberta and she's on the list to get the type of surgery she wanted in about two years.

She was also able to get pregnant with her fourth daughter, who is now one year old.

Pelchat said she wanted to share her story to raise awareness about the condition, especially for her young daughters.

"People need to be aware that it's okay to talk to other people," she said. "And healthcare professionals need to help be there for those people that don't know what's going on."


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