Harmful Hysterectomies: What Your Doctor's Not Telling You

About 600,000 hysterectomies are performed in this country each year, and as many as 420,000 of them may be unwarranted. What all women must know before making this irreversible choice.
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The Only Option

Susan Urquhart, a Christmas tree farmer near Ann Arbor, Michigan, was 54 and going through perimenopause. Her periods were unusually heavy and, for the first time in her life, she was experiencing mood swings and had difficulty sleeping. Because she also had fibroids, benign tumors that her gynecologist believed now made her uterus the size of a five-month pregnancy, the doctor urged her to have a hysterectomy, saying it would relieve her symptoms. But when an ultrasound showed that her fibroids were nowhere near that big, Urquhart refused to have the operation.

Three months later, still seeking relief, she went back to her gynecologist. The doctor explained that hormone therapy wasn't an option -- fibroids appear to grow in the presence of estrogen -- and was adamant that a hysterectomy was the only solution. No other alternatives were even mentioned. Urquhart reluctantly agreed.

"Because of my age, the doctor said she was going to remove my ovaries as well as my uterus. She said it was standard procedure," says Urquhart, who objected, worried that losing her ovaries, which make most of the body's estrogen, would result in hot flashes and make her other symptoms worse. Her doctor countered that "she could replace what my ovaries were producing with drugs."

Expecting relief after the surgery -- which did include removal of her ovaries -- Urquhart instead slammed into severe instant menopause. Even twice the usual hormone dose didn't quell her hot flashes, night sweats, and other symptoms. At her six-week post-op visit, Urquhart asked, "What happened to me?" She says the doctor laughed and replied, "It's menopause. You'd have been like this in a year anyway."

But it was her post-surgery sex life that really sent Urquhart into an emotional tailspin. "I had always been orgasmic," she says. Without a uterus, intense uterine orgasms were a thing of the past. "If sex was a 10 before," she says, "it's now a two to three at best. This is a huge loss."

Urquhart is hardly the first woman to be pressured into having a hysterectomy without a full and frank discussion of the risks and alternatives. More women have hysterectomies than any other type of surgery except Cesarean section, and an astonishing 90 percent of hysterectomies are done for benign conditions such as uterine fibroids, abnormal bleeding, endometriosis, and pelvic pain, all of which can often be treated with less-drastic remedies. Moreover, more than half of these operations are performed on women under age 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Are we doing too many hysterectomies in this country?" asks William Parker, MD, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Saint John's Health Center, in Santa Monica, California, and coauthor of A Gynecologist's Second Opinion. "There's no question about it."

Continued on page 2:  Finding Other Choices

 

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