Welcome to the new feature on The Bandwagon. What’s A Girl Gotta Do? will focus on issues that particularly affect women, and I’ll be discussing how we’re usually at a disadvantage, particularly when it comes to medical issues.
Warning! This post delves into the occurrence of Bartholin’s cysts and abscesses. A fairly strong stomach may be required.
Okay! Almost everyone who was born with a vagina* will also have Bartholin’s glands. They’re located on either side of the vagina opening, and are small ducts which product lubrication during sexual arousal. It’s estimated that 1 in 50 women (that’s 2% of women) will experience a Bartholin’s cyst at least once in their lives. I’m one of the unlucky ones, as I’ve had several, and they almost always turn into abscesses.
So why is there a distinct lack of information on this problem? Oh yes, because it only happens to women. (If you don’t think that sexism occurs in the medical world, get the hell off my blog, & do some damn research.) I want to talk about Bartholin’s glands, the issues some women can face, and how to throttle- I mean, talk to your doctor about it.
What am I talking about?
As outlined above, the Bartholin’s glands are located at the opening of the vagina, and are there to give us lubrication prior to and during intercourse. These glands can get blocked, and the result is a cyst. Some women have cysts in their glands and don’t know they’re there. They can be very small, painless lumps, that go away without further attention. But in other cases, they can grow to the size of a golf ball, become red and inflamed, or get infected. When this happens, the individual can experience horrendous pain.
I got my first Bartholin’s abscess in 2012, while I was a student. I was living over 250 miles away from home, with housemates who were on their placements at primary schools, and without much of a support network. (I may have had a Bartholin’s cyst before this episode, but this is the first time it turned serious.)
I felt a large-ish lump on the ride side of my vagina. It was hot and painful to touch, and inflamed. I did a quick Google search and found advice to do a sitz bath, which is to sit in a few inches of hot (as hot as you can handle) water. These baths are supposed to help Bartholin’s cysts. So, over the course of the evening, I did a couple of sitz baths, to no avail. The lump kept growing. My GP surgery was closed. I tried applying a warm compress, and took ibuprofen for the pain.
That night was pretty scary. It transpired that the cyst had gotten infected, and the infection had entered my bloodstream. I spent the night alternating between hot sweats and chills. I dipped in and out of sleep, feverish dreams mixing with reality. Early the next morning, I tried to ring my GP. On hold, then, finally, no appointments. So I rang NHS Direct. By that point, I was desperate. I could barely crawl up the stairs to do a sitz bath. I had no energy. I was hot, cold, sweating, shivering. I felt like shit, to put it plainly. NHS Direct managed to get me an appointment with my GP, so I dragged myself to the car, and drove down.
Sitting in the waiting room. Pain, pain, can’t sit down. Stood up. Swaying, unsteady, can’t stay up. “Miss Patis!” the receptionist called. “I need you to fill in this form. You’re only a temporary patient at the moment, so you need to register fully.”
I hobbled over to the desk, took the form, and stared at it. I managed to fill in my name, date of birth, address. But where was I born? I sat back down, keeping my weight off my right side, racking my brains on my birthplace.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the receptionist, swaying on my feet. “I can’t remember… I’m not able to…”
ding! My name popped up on the screen. The doctor will see you now. I shoved the forms back at the receptionist and staggered down the hall.
I stayed on my feet as I explained what was going on to the doctor. I could feel sweat pouring down my face. She told me to strip from the waist down, and got me up on the examination table.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. I lifted my head, alarmed. “Oh dear!”
“What?” I said,straining to see. She started pulling tissue paper out of a dispenser on the wall.
I looked on in horror as the wiped the cyst, and lifted up the blood- and pus-covered tissues for me to see.
“Fuck! That’s disgusting! I’m so sorry…”
The doctor laughed. “Don’t worry, I love this kind of stuff. I’m kinda gross like that.” She then proceeded to squeeze and wipe the cyst, moving on from tissue paper to couch roll, which was scratchy and uncomfortable. She kept going until it was pretty much empty, cleaned the area, and patched me up with some gauze. I was also given a prescription for some antibiotics.
“Have you got someone to pick this up for you?” the doctor asked. I shook my head.
“I drove here, so I can just pop up to the pharmacy up the road.”
“You drove here?!” A nod from me. “Couldn’t someone else have driven you?” A shake. “Well, be very careful driving home. That infection is pretty bad – a few more hours, and you could have ended up in hospital.”
Ah, jolly good. I thanked her, picked up my extra-strength antibiotics, and drove myself home. The drive home was so much easier than the journey to the doctors. When these abscesses burst, the relief is instantaneous. The pressure is gone, as is all the crap clogging up the gland, and you feel better immediately. It took a few days for me to feel back to normal – while the antibiotics worked quickly, I still felt crappy for a while – but the pain was so much more bearable. The area felt sore, and still leaked a bit, but it was nowhere near as bad as it had been.
So, my first abscess of the Bartholin’s gland could have killed me. Sadly, this would not be an isolated incident – I would go on to have dozens more similar experiences. On the only plus side, after this experience, any discomfort at exposing myself to a doctor vanished.
Dr Patis in the house
After having dealt with that fiasco, the next time I felt the area swelling, I hopped straight into the bath, adding some table salt. Ain’t nobody got time for going to the GP surgery every time, so I soon became a pro at dealing with these little bastards myself. Sitz bath, repeat, place tissue against area, apply some antiseptic cream, try to get comfortable, and force the bugger to burst.
This method usually works, thought it might take a day or two. (I haven’t been desperate enough to take a needle to one yet, and I wouldn’t advise it.) They usually hang around for a few weeks, not quite healed, taunting, but I’ve never had any serious complications (touch wood!). But I am getting quite sick of this now. Isn’t there a long-term solution? Apparently, there is.
What’s a girl gotta do?
So, what’s a girl gotta do to get a doctor to listen to her about her own damn vagina? (Don’t even get me started on my quest to be sterilised. I’ll be dedicating a whole other blog post to that topic.)
My first port of call was the GP. I explained how often I get this little buggers, and how bad they can get. She tried to wiggle out of helping me by asking whether I was certain it was the Bartholin’s glands acting up, and then blaming hidradenitis suppurativa (which I also suffer from) entirely on smoking. (I mean, what? Source please! I asked her if it was correlation or causation, and she conceded that it was correlation. I said I’d do some research into it, got a raised eyebrow in response. Effing doctors.) She checked my blood sugar (because being a fat smoker is responsible for every. thing. ever., in case you didn’t get the memo), which was perfect, then I offered to show her what I was talking about.
I’m getting really good at showing my bits to doctors. She examined me, commented on the level of scarring (cheers!), and admitted that it looks as if I currently have cysts in both glands (I do, one abscessed on Christmas Day. The gift that keeps on giving). She referred me to a gynaecologist, and I’ve got my appointment at the end of this month. Result!
My next step is to attend that appointment, of course, and try to convince the gynaecologist that I’m at the end of my damn tether here. I’ll do a new post after my consultation, to let y’all know where I’m going from here.
In the meantime, I’ve got some triclosan wash to use in the shower – has anyone ever used this for cysts before? I’ve got a nasty sebaceous cyst on my neck, and I rubbed a bit of the triclosan on it last night. It’s definitely less angry today. Castor oil tends to work on the sebaceous cysts if you catch them early enough, but the Bartholin’s cysts do not like castor oil, so beware. If you’ve got any tips on how to deal with this shit, let me know in the comments, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did you make it to the end? Are you grossed out? Look, the reason I’m being so candid is because some women will truly believe that they are alone in this. But none of us has to suffer alone. Let’s suffer together, share our tips and methods of coping, and see if we can’t force the medical world to listen to us.
*My lack of knowledge is showing here. I’m not entirely sure if trans-women have Bartholin’s glands, so this post is very cis-focused. Sorry about that! Please do educate me in the comments below, or pop me an email, email@example.com.