Padma Lakshmi is a visible woman: as a model, as the perennial host of Top Chef, as a writer of cookbooks and style columns. She's used this power to co-found a nonprofit, the Endometriosis Foundation of America, to bring recognition, research, and education to a common gynecological condition. Lakshmi's own story with the disorder reflects the stories of many: beginning with her first period, she battled pain and nausea a week out of every month for 23 years, until her diagnosis at age 36. I got her on the phone to talk more about her awakening to the diagnosis and her work helping others to do the same.
Lola Pellegrino: Your mother's a nurse and your father's in the pharmaceutical industry, so I'm assuming you grew up pretty familiar with medicine and that whole world, which makes it even more shocking that you went undiagnosed for so long. Do you remember the first time you heard the word endometriosis?
Padma Lakshmi: Growing up in my house, it was very open. My mother and I talked about [health] stuff all the time. I just think she was conditioned to think that the pain I was having was normal. She went through it, and she was prepped to accept it by her mother, so she did the same with me. Nobody had ever said the word endometriosis to any of us. We just thought, Some women have cramps, some women don't. And when you're just told that there's really nothing to be done, that this just happens, you become resigned to it, I guess.
So, the first time I heard the word endometriosis was in Dr. Tamer Seckin's office. I was 36. I did have good insurance. I did go to my checkups. I did have various gynecologists in various cities examining me on a regular basis, and they would prescribe me pain pills or ask me if I wanted to go on birth control, and yet nobody ever said, "Maybe we should go in there; maybe we should do a biopsy. Maybe we should see if there's tissue that needs to be removed."
I was on the pill for most of my 20s. But I used to smoke, and I didn't want to take the pill while I was smoking, so I stopped when I was 30. That's when the endo came raging back and became such a problem that I was rushed to the emergency room. At that point, a doctor did say, "OK, you have a couple of ovarian cysts. Let's remove those," but he never said anything about endometriosis and he went ahead with surgery.
LP: It must take such strength to be able to know that one week out of the month, at the very least, you're going to be borderline incapacitated. How did you manage that? How did you take care of yourself?
PL: Oh my God, yeah. I modeled after college, and I knew I couldn't take any assignments the week my period was due, because the few times that I did wind up working while having my period were just horrible. I would run and throw up, or just be so doubled over in pain that it just wasn't worth it. So I booked out.
I made sure my prescriptions were filled. I would live on hot tea and heating pads and hot-water bottles. I tried acupuncture. I would smoke pot. I would do anything and everything and all of it, because it was like, "OK, those days are coming. Batten down the hatches."