Padma Lakshmi, author, model and co-host of Bravo's series "Top Chef," opened up to students and scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Friday, where she traveled to raise awareness of endometriosis, a disease of the uterus that affects millions of women.
Lakshmi said endometriosis has interfered with her work for decades and threatened her ability to have children.
Now triumphantly pregnant after receiving treatment, Lakshmi was at the MIT Center for Gynepathology Research shortly after it's opening to tell young women not to ignore the pain of endometriosis.
The center is run by MIT professor Linda Griffith, an expert in tissue engineering and winner of a prestigious MacArthur "genius'' grant.
"A lot of women are delaying their motherhood from their 20s to their 30s, or even their 40s," said Lakshmi. "Often you find out that you can't have children until it's too late because you never got it treated. And that is a real tragedy."
Endometriosis occurs when the tissue that makes up the lining of the uterus begins to grow outside of the womb for unknown reasons. These lesions of uterine lining can spread to other organs in the abdomen and respond to a woman's hormone cycles -- causing much pain, cramping, scar tissue, and infertility.
But Lakshmi suspected all along that something was wrong, she just never had the support from her doctors to figure out why she was in so much pain.
"I always wondered why it was that I suffered the worst out of any girl in my class from cramps," said Lakshmi, who added that her own mother suffered from severe period symptoms and tried to prepare her to deal with the pain.
"When I went to a women gynecologist, ironically, she said 'oh it can't be that we all have our periods dear'," said Lakshmi.
As an adult, Lakshmi said her symptoms were so unbearable at times that she would have to arrange her life around her cycles.
She told her assistant to mark the 3 or 4 days each month on the calendar and make no commitments she could not break if the pain got too unbearable.
"Pain is a very solitary, isolating thing. I thought perhaps I was just being a ninny. That's how you feel, you feel thin-skinned, and of course your hormones are out of whack," she said. Because of the isolation, and the initial response from her doctor, Lakshmi continued to suffer through decades in pain.
Eventually, Lakshmi got a proper diagnoses and treatments involving surgery. And now she is pregnant.
"After 35, chances for a natural pregnancy are going down. If you have endometriosis, that process is significantly affected," said Dr. Tamer Seckin, Lakshmi's doctor and co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America.
Seckin explained the scar tissue that forms after endometriosis can twist and pull a woman's reproductive organs out of alignment making it difficult for the egg to reach the fallopian tube. Scar tissue might completely block the tube, or even cover the ovary. Moreover, the uterine lining tissue gives off chemicals that interfere with the sperm reaching the egg.
Add all of that to the natural loss of fertility, and as Lakshmi pointed out, women with endometriosis are at a higher risk of infertility.