Having trained as a dancer, Shelaagh Ferrell knew her body inside out.
“It seemed as if I was developing muscle on one side of my abdomen and not the other,” Shelaagh explained. “I went to my doctor and said, ‘It’s really strange. Why do I have overdeveloped muscles on my right side of my abdomen and not on my left?’”
It was then that Shelaagh was diagnosed with fibroids—common benign tumors that grow from smooth muscle tissue of the uterus. “That was really the first time I had even heard the word fibroid,” she admitted.
Uterine fibroids are commonly associated with symptoms such as heavy painful periods, but Shelaagh’s case was different. Not having the usual symptoms, she had what physicians refer to as asymptomatic fibroids. “I wasn’t feeling any pain. I wasn’t experiencing heavy bleeding, as many women do with fibroids.”
But her fibroids were problematic in other ways. “As the fibroids grew, it was clear I was starting to look rather pregnant,” she described. And for Shelaagh, body image is important. With a lean physique of a former dancer and with her work as an actress, singer, film producer and writer, she takes obvious pride in this facet of her femininity.
“The other symptom was that I really started to feel tired. Exceedingly tired,” Shelaagh continued. “Doctors thought perhaps it was because I was doing a lot, but I knew it wasn’t.”
With a large fibroid the size of an avocado, Shelaagh was given four options: a hysterectomy, a myomectomy, uterine fibroid embolization (UFE), or to watch and wait.
Like many other women, she found herself stuck between a rock and a hard place. At the time, she was unfamiliar with UFE. And describing herself as a person who will “avoid surgery at all costs,”—going under the knife was not a viable choice. And so, she decided to continue to monitor her fibroid growth.
“I was told the [UFE procedure] would be really painful,” Shelaagh explained. “I worried about a benign tumor dying inside of me and wondered how bad that would be. So I thought it was probably best to do nothing.”
Six years after her diagnosis, she continued to watch and wait. During this time, her fibroid grew to 20 centimeters and began pressing on her inferior vena cava, a major vessel that carries blood from the lower body to the heart. Something had to be done.
After diligently researching UFE, Shelaagh decided it was the right fibroid treatment for her. “I was adamant. I didn’t want a hysterectomy,” she stressed. “I didn’t even want a myomectomy.”
Against the wishes of many general practitioners, she continued to fight for her body. “Of course you want to keep your womb,” Shelaagh recalled passionately. “The first instinct of most general practitioners is to say, ‘We’ll put you in for a hysterectomy. Why do you want to keep your womb? You don’t need a womb at your age.’ That’s very upsetting. It’s very insulting.”
With her mind made up, she searched for an interventional radiologist to ask if she could be a candidate for UFE. “I was very lucky. I had Dr. Cheryl Hoffman from UCLA. She was so supportive. She was so impressed that I had fought for UFE.”
With Dr. Hoffman, Shelaagh finally got the relief she fought so hard for. Using words like “comfortable” and “not painful” to describe the approximately hour-long UFE procedure, she was pleased with her experience. Only having “a little ache” for a week afterwards, she was able to start dancing again within two to three weeks.
“The result for me is I don’t feel tired anymore. I feel younger than I was then. I have far more energy…[and] a flatter looking tummy,” she said. “It’s been just over a year now. My fibroid is still there but it is a lot smaller and lighter.”