Byline: Frances Hardy and Victoria LamBert
AFTER doctors told her she had advanced ovarian cancer and needed an urgent hysterectomy, Tracey Murray's life spiralled into chaos. 'My consultant said the cancer was extensive. I discovered that without surgery I could die within a year,' she recalls.
'The shock, of course, was profound. I was told I'd need six months of chemotherapy following the operation and that after that, my chances of living for five years were 50 per cent. I was devastated.'
Consider, then, the mix of emotions that ensued when, three weeks after Tracey, a 41-year-old divorcee, had her womb, both ovaries and cervix removed, she was told that she did not, after all, have any form of cancer.
In fact she had endometriosis, a common condition in which pieces of her womb lining had embedded in an ovary. And it could have been treated by cutting away the affected cells or destroying them by laser; indeed, it might have needed no treatment at all. In either case, her hysterectomy had been unnecessary. 'The surgeon told me: "It's good news. You haven't got cancer."
And I thought: "Gosh, I'm lucky," recalls Tracey, a writer. 'But by now I was feeling absolutely awful; far worse than I did before the operation, when I'd actually been feeling very healthy.'
And in the following months it only got worse. 'I now feel as though my sexuality has been destroyed. My libido and sex life have been obliterated. I can't have children now -- although I'd hoped to one day -- but I think I can learn to live with that. It is the fact that I can never retrieve my sexuality that is devastating.'
For Tracey, this common operation -- 60,000 to 70,000 are performed in Britain each year -- had not proved to be a godsend, but a curse. And her case is far from isolated.
While experts have warned that the operation is absolutely necessary for cancer, critics claim the invasive procedure has become over-used.
It's increasingly seen as a bit of a 'one-size-fitsall' procedure for 'female' problems -- that is at best unnecessary and at worst painful, leaving long-term emotional scarring.
Rick Schweikert, programme director of the HERS Foundation, a non-profit organisation in the U.S. which educates women about hysterectomy, says he'd like to see it go the way of tonsillectomy and effectively be phased out.
Dr Woodruff Walker, a consultant diagnostic and interventional radiologist and lead clinician in gynaecological cancer at the Royal Surrey Hospital, concedes that many hysterectomies are performed needlessly.
'I don't think anyone seriously doubts that this is the case,' he says. 'And aside from the psychological and health implications of having a hysterectomy, there are potential cosmetic impacts: the incision can leave quite a disfiguring scar.
'Many women report that the operation interferes with their sex life. Other possible risks include perforation of the bowel or bladder and problems with the abdominal wall. In 4 to 6 per cent of cases, serious complications that require further major surgery occur.'
For most women, however, the real concern seems to be about losing their sense of femininity, their libido, and the ability to experience sexual pleasure.
When HERS surveyed 691 women who'd had their womb and both ovaries removed in a hysterectomy, its findings were disturbing. Nearly 80 per cent struggled with poor libido, 70 per cent were less happy with their sex life, 80 per cent reported profound fatigue and more than half suffered weight gain.
Solicitor Bridgette York, who campaigns for alternative treatments to hysterectomy, believes women's reluctance to discuss their sex lives has allowed doctors to continue to perform needless operations.
Women, she says, are routinely told surgery is the only option; its consequences are not clearly explained and there is a …