Adam Walker, Contributing Photographer
In an effort to raise awareness of endometriosis, Veronica Denner ’24 hosts a screening of director Shannon Cohn’s new documentary “Below the belt” in Luce Hall on Wednesday night.
The documentary, which will be released on March 29, follows four women on their long and painful journey to the diagnosis and treatment of endometriosis. Through the use of personal interviews, the film sheds light on the obstacles these women faced, including misdiagnosis, medical neglect, and the physical and emotional toll of living with a debilitating and painful condition.
Endometriosis is a chronic inflammatory condition characterized by the growth of tissue on organs outside the uterus. The condition can cause scarring, inflammation and adhesions between organs, causing organ damage in the worst case scenario. It affects one in 10 women adiagnosis takes an average of about seven to 10 years.
“There’s this misconception that endometriosis is just a reproductive disease, but endometriosis implants can be found in every single organ in the body,” Denner told the News. “Like me, I also had endometriosis in the urinary, digestive and respiratory systems. It really is a whole body disease that can cause debilitating pain either chronically or at certain times of the menstrual cycle.
Denner shared that she had to go on medical leave in March 2022 due to endometriosis. At this point, she had had symptoms for almost three years, dating back to her freshman year at university. The symptoms gradually worsened to the point where she could barely get out of bed and was almost passing out. Every doctor told her there was nothing wrong with her and that pain was just part of being a woman. She read the material and had to self-diagnose.
She said if she hadn’t self-diagnosed, doctors “still wouldn’t know what was wrong [her].”
Her personal struggles inspire her to reach out to Jenna Richet, one of the four women featured in “Below the Belt,” Cohn and the team’s assistant. She shared her personal story with them and asked to host a screening of the film at Yale.
Since December, Denner has been working on endometriosis advocacy efforts through her own Instagram page, @missendoitall. Denner noted that Below the Belt helped her throughout the process.
Before the screening of the film, Denner gave a speech to introduce the audience to the importance of the topics discussed in the documentary.
“Unfortunately, my story is more the norm than the tragic exception,” Denner said. “Endometriosis can be an absolutely debilitating disease that is as prevalent among women as diabetes. But to this day, most doctors around the world have never heard of it, and it receives hundreds of times less funding than equally common diseases that also affect men. Call me a little angry girl, but if there was a disease that caused 10 percent of all men to experience so much chronic pain and fatigue, I strongly believe there would be more awareness and certainly more treatment.
By presenting the stories of different women, Below the Belt aimed to demonstrate the gaslighting, sexist bias, lack of funding in women’s healthcare and the severe impact these issues have on endometriosis patients.
After the screening of the film, there was a panel discussion at which experts delved into the topics explored in the documentary.
“I was told that I could not take sick days and that my grades would be affected if I took those sick days, even though my doctors and the USC Disability Office approved it for me,” said Generation Z chronic disease influencer Gigi Robinson.
Robinson, who was diagnosed with endometriosis in December 2022, shared that after many doctor visits, she initially thought her body was just reacting to her period, but the pain kept getting worse. She said she was going through it without the support of friends and many people told her she was being dramatic. She continues to advocate for endometriosis awareness through her social media platform and her ultimate goal is to help more women with the condition.
Dora Kohler, a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry at Yale, discussed the link between endometriosis and mental health in her research on the topic.
“We do research on psychiatric disorders, so I wanted to understand the relationship between a physical illness like endometriosis and mental health,” she said. “If someone suffers from chronic pain, that person is likely to develop anxiety, depression and even eating disorders, and this is common in patients with endometriosis.”
Koller’s research on endometriosis reveals that although there are some publications on the topic, most of them have a very small sample size. In an effort to address this gap, Koller aimed to conduct a big data analysis and compare his findings to previous studies. Her research found a link between endometriosis and anxiety and eating disorders.
She also noted that some researchers consider endometriosis a systemic disease because it can affect not only the reproductive system, but other body systems as well. Additionally, endometriosis can have a significant impact on a woman’s ability to conceive.
Another Yale postdoctoral fellow, Geeta Pathak, praised Kohler for her work in endometriosis research, since Kohler herself has endometriosis. Pathak stated that she had already heard many of Denner’s statements verbatim from Koller and that Koller was the mastermind behind many of the endometriosis studies. She praised these women who did so much research even after all their pain, calling them “endo-heroes.”
Yoongi Cho, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences in the Faculty of Medicine, spoke about his experience working with patients with endometriosis.
“A lot of times patients come in and they come in with these myriad ailments,” she said. “They are often told they have IBS, fibromyalgia and sometimes they are told it is psychological when in reality the answer is actually endometriosis. Generally, patients are relieved and excited when they come into my office and I tell them they may have endometriosis.”
When asked if she was taught about endometriosis in medical school, Cho explained how women’s health is not really at the forefront of medical education and is very limited in the medical curriculum. As a resident, she had some exposure and discussions, but these were also very limited.
The screening ended with a closing statement from Denner, in which she emphasized the importance of raising awareness about this disease. She said everyone at Yale needs to know about endometriosis, and as a leading research university, Yale has a responsibility to find better treatment options. With many Yale students entering politics, Denner believes it is extremely important to ensure that as many Yale students as possible learn about the condition.
“Below the Belt” is executive produced by Hillary Clinton LAW ’73, Rosario Dawson, Corinne Fox and Mae Whitman, all of whom have had endometriosis, and will air on PBS on March 29.