I’ve been wanting to write this post for some time now; in fact, it’s been on my mind literally every day for the past two weeks. I need to write the birth control post, I’d remind myself every morning. Alas, life happens – and my motivation to write the post fell by the wayside. However, in light of the recent media coverage in Canada about Yaz and Yasmin birth control pills, I figured that maybe it was time to bump this post to the top of my “to-do” list.
Health Canada has received reports of at least 23 young Canadian women who have died while taking one of two commonly prescribed birth control pills, Yaz and Yasmin. More than half the reported deaths were in women younger than 26, including one who was 14.
Here’s my disclaimer: I’ve never taken Yaz or Yasmin, and clearly, I am alive and well – hence, have not suffered any lasting or debilitating effects of taking birth control pills. However, I was on the pill for exactly half my life – 17.5 years – with breaks in between for pregnancies and breast feeding. For the most part, it was a wonderful relationship… but when the pill became a pain, I knew I had to stop.
It all started when I was 18 years old. I had a boyfriend… use your imagination… I went on the pill. << I actually feel incredibly awkward writing that because my Mom reads my blog every day. But I was EIGHTEEN, Mom! An adult who was capable of making informed decisions. And when faced with the choice between teen pregnancy or popping a tiny pill once per day, it was an easy one for me.
I’ll never forget the little informational booklet that came with the pack of pills. I was quite certain I had never seen anything so intense in my entire life. The health precautions, the instructions for use, the dedicated section to Oh sh*t I forgot to take a pill now what do I do?. I had that pack of pills for three months before I felt comfortable taking my first – always contemplating if the benefits outweighed the risks.
And for the most part, they did. My body loved the birth control pill (good old Marvelon back in 1996!) and I honestly can’t say I experienced any detrimental side effects at all. My periods – previously highly irregular and crampy as hell – were now on a perfect 28-day cycle, manipulated to start every fourth Monday so I never lost out on a weekend of fun ;) If I had a big event, no biggie – I’d just take the pill straight through to avoid menstruating that month. My periods were lighter, I knew when to expect them, and most importantly, I was fully protected from an unwanted pregnancy.
Life was a bowl of cherries!
Somewhere along the way, I was switched from Marvelon to Alesse. I didn’t question the substitution because a healthy, non-smoker in her twenties had no reason to. However, when I was 26 years old, I experienced my first migraine. I’ll never forget that day; sitting at my computer, trying to put together a slide presentation, I suddenly couldn’t focus on the screen. Bright, jagged, zig-zag lines appeared in my line of vision and suddenly, an overwhelming feeling of malaise took over. I was nauseous, felt a wringing in my ears and was utterly disoriented. Thankfully, a caring co-worker instantly recognized the signs of a migraine “aura” and asked to drive me home. As we waited at a red light just before my street, I jumped out of her car and threw up on the side of the road.
The ensuing headache was gut-wrenching but brief; after about two hours and rest in my dark, quiet room, I slowly felt better and hoped that it was an experience I wouldn’t have to repeat any time soon. At the time, I didn’t have any reason to believe that the birth control pill could have caused the isolated incident, so I continued on my merry way right up to a few weeks before my wedding, when my doctor cautioned that being on the pill without a break for just over 10 years could negatively affect my chances of conception. Since we knew we wanted to start a family in the coming years, I threw caution to the wind and didn’t refill my prescription.
Lesson #1: For every doctor who says it may be hard to get pregnant when coming off the pill after long-term use, there are tons of women like me who get pregnant right away. Like, on the first cycle off the pill. And have no idea they’re pregnant because they assume their period went back to being irregular. And continue to be in denial even when they start tossing their cookies every morning. Memories!
Since Ryder wasn’t breastfed, menstruation resumed about four months after his birth. Of course, the birth control pill was my first choice for contraception, but now, as a mother at age 30, I was a slightly less accommodating when told that Alesse was now substituted with Avianne. I couldn’t help but question why I couldn’t simply continue with the pill I was comfortable with, but the pharmacy no longer carried Alesse, and I couldn’t find one in my area that did. So, since my period had already started and I needed to make a quick decision, I started the new pill.
And, the migraines started too.
They came with a frequency that should have been alarming, but instead, I passed them off as simply a hormonal thing. After all, my body had been through the gambit, and certainly these headaches were a result of the changes that had taken place. I could predict when it was going to rain or snow by the telltale aura and ensuing migraine about 24 hours before the precipitation arrived. If the shower I took was too long or too hot – BAM! – migraine. And in a particularly cruel twist of fate, when I stayed up all night with a crying baby, I was often rewarded with a migraine the next morning.
I was averaging a migraine every ten days, and for the first time, started stockpiling Advil Liquid Gels. Still, I didn’t connect the migraines to the birth control pill, because I had taken it so long without concern. And, I had experienced migraines – albeit infrequently – before having children, and truly believed that it was simply hormones that had exacerbated my condition. Adding credence to that theory: while I was pregnant with and breastfeeding Reid, my migraines disappeared.
My “a-ha!” moment happened last December. After resuming the birth control pill in 2011, and suffering with migraines for most of 2012, I saw a friend’s Facebook post which featured a study linking the birth control pill and stroke in perfectly healthy young women who had one pre-existing condition: migraine with aura.
If you suffer from migraine with aura you should not take the combined oral contraceptive Pill. This is because the combined pill is associated with a very small increased risk of ischaemic stroke. This risk increases when the Pill is taken by women who have additional risks for stroke, such as smoking and migraine with aura.
Hurriedly, I grabbed a pack of pills and ripped open the enclosed leaflet. And there it was, smack in the middle of that scary instruction booklet – one that I had not read since I was 18 years old, long before migraines were a concern. But I couldn’t deny that in plain English it was stated: although the chances for stroke were small, and unlikely to occur… I was not a fit for the combination birth control pill.
Instantly, I was angry. Just weeks ago, my doctor had prescribed Naproxen for migraines – and Alesse for birth control – on the very same prescription! Months ago, I had complained about migraines to my OB/GYN, who had been prescribing birth control to me for years. Almost two decades. Neither of them perceived my migraines with aura to be any kind of warning sign at all.
Lesson #2: Take your health into your own hands. Armed with this new information, I made a decision for me. While nobody could definitively tell me that the pill was causing my increased, debilitating migraines – nor could they tell me how likely the “very small increased risk of ischaemic stroke” affected me personally, I realized that after 17.5 years, it was time to end my relationship with the birth control pill. On December 24th, I experienced an intense migraine that lasted for days instead of hours. I took it as a sign that I was making the right decision; with only 4 more pills left in my cycle, I couldn’t wait to move on.
December 24th. That was the last time I experienced a migraine. Six months of glorious, pain-free living. Last year at this time, I would have already suffered through 18-20 episodes of pain.
Was the birth control pill responsible? Most likely, though I’m sure having two kids did play a role as well. Perhaps after-birth hormones + synthetic hormones = Lena lying in a dark room popping Advil. Regardless, I feel so good, so strong, so smart for making a decision that was best for me – based on my own research, intuition and desire to question the medication I once took with naïve recklessness.
I’m not exactly sure how this ties in to the recent deaths surrounding Yaz and Yasmin. Perhaps it’s as simple as always being aware of the side effects and complications of the prescription drugs you’re taking, and staying on top of changes in your own body, and how it reacts to medicine immediately – and over time. And if there’s just one migraine sufferer out there who re-evaluates her use of the birth control pill because of this post, my work here is done. Stay healthy friends.