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Former Olympian Jana Pittman opens up on ‘taboo’ heavy menstrual bleeding: ‘Shouldn’t be this bloody difficult’

Former Olympian Jana Pittman has opened up about her struggle with heavy menstrual bleeding – saying “it shouldn’t be this bloody difficult” for women to get help.

Also known as menorrhagia, the condition is characterized by abnormally heavy or prolonged bleeding and periods, on top of side effects like bloating, fatigue, anxiety and a loss of control over emotions, and physical pain.

“I was definitely one of those women who thought my heavy periods were normal – probably because it’s not a conversation you have with your friends every day,” Pittman, who is now a doctor, said.

“‘How often do you change your tampon?’ is not something that comes up over coffee. So, for many years – for most of my adult life – I thought I had very normal periods and just went through crazy amounts of packets of menstrual products.”

The mum-of-six only realized something was amiss in the “last four of five years”, upon entering the medical profession.

“The first two or three days [of my period] I would regularly bleed through my clothes, and it would always catch me unaware. I’d be out training, and I’d be having blood [leak] through my pants,” Pittman recalled.

“At work [now], I wear very light scrubs and I regularly would have a spot on my clothes and be like, ‘Oh my God, how embarrassing. Did anybody notice?’

“I didn’t know that was abnormal, though. It wasn’t until I started talking to people around what their period experience was that I realized mine are really, really heavy.”

Experiences like Pittman’s are far from extraordinary.

“For so many years I had it, and didn’t even know – and that to me says that so many women are going to be in the same boat as me,” she said.

“They’re not going to understand what their body’s going through. So that’s a huge problem.”

New research, commissioned by Hologic, found that at least one-in-two Australian women aged 35 to 52 are grappling with abnormally long – or heavy – periods, but are yet to discuss the condition with their doctor.

“I think largely that’s because they often don’t recognize that they have it,” she said of why half of women with menorrhagia don’t seek help.

“They think their bleeding is quite normal, and it’s not until they discuss their symptoms of fatigue or [the] psychological stress that’s associated with feeling so tired as a result of the bleeding, that someone might suggest for them to get help.

“This research is really alarming – and it really highlights the fact that we need to encourage our women to educate themselves on what normal bleeding is.”

Sydney-based gynecologist and obstetrician Dr Talat Uppal described the findings as “quite profound”, echoing Pittman’s sentiment that “women need to have an idea of how long a period normally is or how heavy the flow should be”.

“Heavy menstrual bleeding can have a huge negative impact on women’s quality of life, and this can be on different facets of their life,” Dr Uppal, who is also the founder and director of Women’s Health Road, said.

“[It also] has a huge impact on productivity and to the cost of the nation because women are such an important and valued part of our workforce. If they’re unable to come to work – or if they’re having to reduce their hours, or they’re not feeling their personal best or living their best quality of life, it has a direct impact on that.”

The “significant stigma and shame” associated with women’s menstrual health – especially with a condition like menorrhagia – also prevents them from coming forward when they suspect something abnormal, she said.

“The impact that has is that women then often don’t seek care or they’re not confident to speak to either their peers, their friends, their family, or – particularly importantly – a health professional because they are ashamed of this condition, unfortunately,” Dr Uppal said.

“It is so crucial that women start having conversations with their friends, with their schoolmates, with their family, so that there is more and more acceptance that this is normal.”

Pittman agreed, adding it’s important to normalize the “embarrassing episodes” the “vast majority of women have experienced … when it comes to their periods”.

“That might’ve been their first period back in high school, and they still vividly remember getting their first menstrual cycle and how mortifying that was in front of the boys,” she said.

“Or it might be like me, who experienced it in a race, where I remember getting my period halfway through my racing at a major championship and having blood on my leg and thinking, ‘Oh my God, has the crowd noticed?’

“We need to openly have that discussion so that people have these experiences and go, ‘Oh, how funny! It’s just my menstrual cycle’. Rather than going, ‘Oh my God, did somebody notice?’”

Asked what she’d tell Australian women and girls living with heavy menstrual bleeding, Pittman said there is “no time where a woman should be thinking [it] is something that is normal”.

“Women should not be going through that experience, and we need to make sure that they have that empowerment to go out and get help,” Pittman said.

“It’s time to stop suffering in silence. You need to go and see your GP. No woman should ever feel like their periods are getting in the way of their life – be it psychologically or their career or family life.

“It’s time to break that taboo, to start talking to your family and friends. Encourage that conversation – because you might actually find someone else in your group also has heavy menstrual bleeding, and you need to encourage them to go and see their GP as well.

“There are so many options out there to really help with this really unfortunate situation, and it’s time to action that.”