A Toronto Transformation

Bitter Pill – When Birth Control Kills

Last week, there was much discussion on Canadian news outlets following a report from Health Canada linking the Yaz and Yasmin birth control pills to 23 deaths, and numerous other instances of DVT in Canada. A chill settled over me as I stood beside the radio and listened to the mother of 18-year-old Katelynne Fisher, an otherwise healthy young woman who collapsed and died at the gym after suffering a massive stroke. She had been on the pill for a month.

Last week, I also received my final call from the department of Haematology which followed up with me every few months for the past 8 years to see if I’d had more clotting or new symptoms of pulmonary embolism (the worst of which is death, by the way) as part of a study I’ve participated in in the hopes of helping the medical community learn more about DVT and PE.

Obviously I survived my experience with PE (I was an otherwise healthy teenager on Marvelon28) but it was a near thing and it could so easily have gone a different way. What if I hadn’t been home with my parents, who insisted on taking me to emerge? What if we’d arrived at the hospital a little later?

I try not to trifle with what-ifs too often. That way lies madness, I think.

But, man.

“There but for the grace of God go I” never felt so apt.

I was 19 and lived. Katelynne Fisher was 18 and tragically did not.

Comment sections following the news of these 23 deaths are full of people saying that women know the risks of taking the pill, so it’s essentially on them if they are unlucky enough to experience the side effects.

Yes, the possible side-effects are usually listed, (though not always, and certainly not with context) but what 14 year old, desperate to end the fainting, vomiting, and excrutiating pain of a messed up menstrual cycle, is going to think that those risks apply to her? What teenage girl, or grown woman thinks her doctor would prescribe something that really might kill her?

Common lore has it that if you’re an otherwise healthy, young, non-smoker, the warnings on the package must be meant for someone else.

Meanwhile, we don’t test girls for underlying conditions like Factor V Leiden, the genetic mutation I have, which increases the likelihood of developing DVT and pulmonary embolisms. I realize it’s a relatively rare mutation, but with it, I should probably never have taken anything with estrogen, and have been advised never to in the future.  That would have been great information to have prior to nearly losing my life. For most girls and women, it would just be a blood test, and maybe it would feel like a waste, but for some of us it could be life-saving. If testing 100 women, means saving even 1 life, wouldn’t it be worthwhile?

We also tell women what the side-effects could be, but not what symptoms to watch out for. For more than a week before I was rushed to hospital, I thought I had pulled a muscle in my left leg. I thought it was a little odd that it didn’t seem to be improving, and that whenever I took a step, I had pain in my left glute. I also thought I might have a mild urinary tract infection or something, because I was peeing a lot, and feeling weird pressure in my bladder. It wouldn’t have occurred to me in a million years that those were symptoms of a far more serious clot, reaching from my left calf up to my groin. I assumed if it was something really serious, it would hurt more. Of course, with DVT and PE, by the time you have chest pain severe enough to take you to the hospital it might be too late.

Bayer (the company behind Yaz) is certainly not the only culprit here. It’s just the latest.

Years ago, I was shocked and dismayed to learn that the birth control patch some of my friends were crazy about, while being touted as having the same amount of estrogen as the combined birth control pill, was actually releasing way more estrogen into women and girls’ bloodstreams as it was absorbed directly without being digested like the pill, meaning again there was a far higher risk of clotting than most women using the patch realized.

Why would Bayer, or any other company in their position not work to make a pill with a LOWER risk than other pills, rather than just deciding that even though their pill is more hazardous to women’s health than others, the benefits still outweigh the risks? They didn’t for at least 23 women in Canada so far. I’m sure those women would have preferred acne or painful periods or pregnancy over death. Why not work to make progesterone-only birth control pills, which have no increased risk of clotting, more reliable instead of paying billions of dollars in settlements to women and the families of women whose lives have been irreversibly damaged or even lost because they took medication as prescribed by their doctors?

To me, it’s just another example of drug companies being all too willing to play fast and loose with women’s health, in the name of greed and the medical community being far too lax when it comes to making sure that what’s prescribed to young women doesn’t pose a significant threat to their health. And it’s totally unacceptable. We are not guinnea pigs and we deserve better.

11 Responses to Bitter Pill – When Birth Control Kills

  • Alli says:

    This is a really insightful post, but my favorite part is when you say, “We also tell women what the side-effects could be, but not what symptoms to watch out for.” It’s not just in the case of birth control pills. This is a great reminder to ask your doctor about the symptoms of the possible side effects.

    • metamorphocity says:

      Absolutely! It’s something I am far more aware of since my scary experience. It’s tough, because I don’t want to get bogged down thinking every twinge or pain I have might be a symptom of some drug side-effect, but I think it’s really helpful to be aware of, at the very least, the life-threatening side effects symptoms of any medication we’re on.

  • Shannon says:

    I’ve heard about another kind of birth control, I forget the name but it’s that’s like a rod you get injected, leading to a dehabilitating muscle disease. Any kind of birth control that does something in my body that I can’t see freaks me out. I’ve tried on and off for the years, and although I’ve never felt any bad side effects, I never felt comfortable while taking them either. I feel like there’s just too many unknown variables — our bodies are all so different, how can there be one pill for all of us? It’s not worth the risk for me. Hearing about all those deaths is heartbreaking.

    • metamorphocity says:

      Absolutely. I looked into other options for a while, but have been (probably understandably) gun shy about trying even non-hormonal or progestin-only birth control that might have unpleasant side-effects. I think you’re so right that our bodies are all very different. It seems crazy to think that what works for one woman will work for all of us.

  • Manda says:

    Hearing about those deaths is heartbreaking. When I first went on the pill, my doctor explained to me all the side effects and elaborated more than she ordinarily would have about DVT because I was hopping on a transatlantic flight the week after she prescribed me the pill. That scared me… but then I hopped on a lot of other (longer) flights after that, and didn’t really pay much attention to that possible side effect because, well, I don’t know, really. I’m not on the pill anymore, and honestly I am not really sure if I would ever go on it again. I went off it for non-medical reasons, but reading about all these issues scares me – as it should. I agree with Shannon – our bodies are all so different, how can one pill work for everyone?

    • metamorphocity says:

      Good for your doctor for at least trying to get across the message that long flights and birth control pills don’t always mix well. Those plane excercises may seem lame but you can bet I recommend them to everyone I know now, especially women who have other risk factors like the pill, or smoking! It takes all my willpower not to stand up at the beginning of flights and demand that everyone stay hydrated. haha.

  • Emma says:

    Sometimes I think even when side effects are explained, they’re not really explained properly. I was on the pill for five years. That’s how long it took me to realize that I was depressed – only slightly, but depressed nonetheless. Depressed enough that going off the pill made me feel reborn. I have mourned those five numb, spacey years ever since.
    The thing is – no one ever really told me what it feels like to be depressed!! It seems obvious in retrospect, but I wish someone had said “Hey! Just because you’re not that sad and don’t have suicidal tendancies doesn’t mean you’re not depressed!”
    Side effects should include not ever feeling like you are 100% yourself… feeling just slightly foggy and confused all the time… feeling constantly frustrated by your own emotions because they don’t feel like yours… Feeling like you are not as smart as you used to be…
    Haha this is very long. What I’m really trying to say is yes, I agree. I don’t think ANY of the risks are communicated in a way that real people, especially young girls, can relate to or fully understand.
    If anyone has ever considered getting a (non-hormonal!) IUD, I can enthusiatically vouch for that! 🙂

  • McKenzie says:

    After being on the pill for almost ten years, I finally decided enough was enough last month. The primary reason for being on it was preventing pregnancy until I was ready, but I hate that my impressionable teenage self was forced into taking it without considering the alternatives. I’m learning now about natural family planning, and so far so good. 😉

    I think parents need to educate their kids about this aspect of preventing pregnancy. And in regards to natural menstrual relief, I know there are many alternatives. Our diets have so much to do with how our bodies respond to our cycles. I recently read that drinking chamomile tea daily alleviates menstrual pain!

    • metamorphocity says:

      Absolutely! It’s funny, I’ve found that getting regular exercise and cutting back on sugar and alcohol (not that I was a huge consumer of either) seems to help alleviate some of my terrible cramping and other symptoms. While this is, of course, a great thing to discover, it’s totally annoying that it’s not as “convenient” as just taking a pill. But of course, it’s only convenient until you experience deadly side-effects!

    • cassondrajw says:

      I played around with that for a few cycles and was AMAZED at how different my body responds when I’m eating the right diet / getting the right vitamins. This past cycle I had a little ping of cramps and then that was it. Green tea (and chamomile) works because it’s high in Vitamin A, which is a good natural detoxifier of the liver. When the liver is overtaxed with excess estrogen (something nearly every 21st century girl is because of the xenoestrogens in our environment) it flares up every symptom of PMS (cramps, acne, bloating, etc. etc.). Phew – that sounded like an excerpt from a science text book.

      Fertility charting is amazing for opening our eyes to what our body is up to. With all of that being said, however, I don’t have PCOS or endometriosis. I think that can be an entirely different story when your cramps lead you to the emergency room in pain. I’m SO thankful I got off the pill and began charting.

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