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An All-Too-Familiar Tale of How Marilyn Monroe’s Endometriosis Was Swept Under the Rug

One of Hollywood’s brightest stars was victim to the dismissal of pain many women are familiar with – we’re talking about the one and only Marilyn Monroe. Perhaps it’s not such a surprise given the extensive misogyny the celebrity encountered in her career – and even posthumously – but many will relate to her struggles to manage her debilitating endometriosis in an unsympathetic world. 

At the time Marilyn struggled with the disease, it’s estimated that around 70% of endometriosis cases went undiagnosed, leaving countless women to suffer from debilitating pain without treatment or support. The chronic condition involves the growth of cells similar to those found in the uterus’ lining growing in other areas of the pelvis – this can include the bowel, bladder and ovaries. The Hollywood star, like many with the condition, often struggled at work due to the severity of her symptoms – but unfortunately, she was met with rumours and depicted as an unreliable worker. Research shows that, even today, many still struggle with feeling unsupported at work, with research finding a whopping 1 in 6 women with endometriosis have had to leave a job to manage debilitating pain, while the majority of women in the study revealed the condition had a significant impact on their working life. Interestingly, the researchers noted that the transition to working from home for many office workers during the pandemic lockdowns saw the majority of women with the condition’s work experience drastically improve. Looking at those numbers of women having to leave their job due to inadequate flexibility and a lack of support or even awareness of endometriosis, it’s not hard to imagine the direness of the situation Marilyn was forced to endure.

“Not having flexible arrangements in relation to work times or work locations to manage endometriosis symptoms appropriately creates hardships in the workplace for women with endometriosis, with more than half the women in our study identifying this as a problem,” Professor Jon Wardle, one of the study’s authors, told Western Sydney University.

Marilyn’s condition also resulted in an ectopic pregnancy in 1958, with the presence of endometrial tissue found in a fallopian tube, along with having experienced 4 miscarriages prior. After suffering through severe symptoms and the resulting depression, the actress turned to barbiturates like tranquilisers, pain killers and even hypnotic drugs in an attempt to reduce her debilitating pain. Like many women, she was left to manage her symptoms on her own; suffering in silence.

Abdominal pain is one of the most common symptoms of endometriosis. It may be dull or sharp, and for some it feels like severe period cramps and is known to worsen with time. But many sufferers find their pain spreads further out throughout the body, with the following symptoms commonly reported:

  • Back pain
  • Pelvic pain
  • Leg pain
  • Bleeding between periods
  • Severe bloating
  • Cramping
  • Rectal pain
  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Fertility issues
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Heavy bleeding
  • Anaemia
  • Headaches
  • Brain fog
  • Ovarian cysts

Marilyn lived in a time before the administration of safe anti-inflammatory medication and less excessive surgeries – leaving her to suffer extreme pain while being the target of judgement and cruel rumours around her drug use, depression and character. 

Some 60 years after her death things have changed – but much of the problems of medical gaslighting, dismissal of pain and overdue diagnoses live on. Today, 1 in 9 Australian women are living with endometriosis, along with a number of trans and gender diverse people – one thing that all sufferers have in common is the obstacle course standing in the way of getting a diagnosis, from dealing with misdiagnoses to the normalisation of extreme menstrual pain. Research suggests around 10–15% of all women may have endometriosis, significantly reducing their quality of life, and, unfortunately it can take between 4 and 11 years for people to receive their diagnosis, with up to 6 in 10 cases left undiagnosed. While that’s marginally better than the undiagnosed 70% of Marilyn’s era, it’s clear that we’ve still got a long way to go, and not just when it comes to diagnosis and treatment, but also the attitudes, taboo and prejudice those with the condition are forced to experience – often in silence. To Marilyn and all of those suffering from this debilitating disease, a little empathy goes a long way.

Read more about the dangerous effects of medical gaslighting and the difficult process of diagnoses from our community members HERE.

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