Nicky Affleck always loved sport, but as endometriosis has started to seriously impact her life fitness has become both more difficult and more important.
‘Throughout my early to mid-20s I would experience episodes of abdominal pain during exercise and also just doing day-to-day tasks,’ Nicky tells Metro.co.uk.
‘As women, we tend to think nothing much of it and are always told its just the “time of the month”. Truth is, it’s not.
Endometriosis affects 1 in 10 women but it can go undiagnosed for up to 20 years. The disease itself is not very well understood and diagnosing it can be hit and miss, but it is a really serious illness that can have a devastating impact.
‘It’s only now in my mid 30s that the disease has really started to impact my daily life,’ says Nicky.
Sadly, two years ago, Nicky was told that her endometriosis had advanced significantly, it was a real blow to her confidence.
‘I have had two surgeries in an attempt to slow the disease down but ultimately, as of today there is no cure for the disease and the treatment of it is not 100% effective,’ says Nicky.
‘And going under the knife every year is also not the answer. More research needs to be done to really understand how it can be managed and treated.’
The pain of endometriosis can be severe. Flair ups can happen at any time from debilitating abdominal pains to chronic fatigue.
Nicky says she is often completely reliant on painkillers, but the mental and physical boost she gets from playing sport is a real help too.
‘Sport is a fundamental part of my life and who I am,’ she says.
‘I couldn’t survive without it, but equally on bad days, I couldn’t survive without Ibuprofen. I am certain there are many women who really struggle to stay active when living in constant pain.
‘My surgeon is pretty amazed that I’m able to play a sport like hockey at all.
‘It’s genuinely tough as the disease can be so unpredictable. But through playing hockey and building a strong network of friendships around me, I am able to ask for help and seek support from friends and family around me.
‘I also choose to keep myself as active as possible by playing hockey twice a week, going to spin classes two or three times a week and sometimes a gentle long Sunday walk with my friend and her two dogs,’
Nicky is lucky. She found sport at a young age and had a really positive experience of physical activity throughout her school life.
‘Sport gave me a place to escape and a place to go where I could thrive doing something I love,’ says Nicky.
‘At the age of seven I found myself breaking records in the swimming pool, I have built a career working in the youth sport sector and today, at the age of 38 I am back playing hockey for a local London club.
‘Sport was the one thing that never let me down and the one thing that when I committed to it, it gave me so much back.’
Nicky rediscovered her love of sport in her mid 30s, but taking the leap back on to the hockey pitch wasn’t an easy decision.
‘It was probably one of the most daunting things I’ve ever done. I wasn’t a teenager anymore and my body and fitness levels had obviously changed the older I got,’ says Nicky.
‘But what did motivate me to get back into playing was a welcoming club filled with wonderful and different women.
‘They were there because hockey gave them a place where they felt like they belonged, where they could build new friendships, and it gave them a sense of family whilst playing a game we all loved.’
Nicky knows she isn’t alone in feeling scared about jumping into a new social situation like this – she thinks it’s vital that women support each other and make fitness spaces as accessible and welcoming as possible.
‘Often we think it’s only teenager girls who fear judgement in a group setting, hence the drop off in female participation levels from the age of 11,’ says Nicky. ‘But I am living proof that it isn’t just teenagers who struggle with it.
‘Most women have an intrinsic fear of not being good enough, or of others judging them.
‘I convinced a friend to join the club with me four years ago because I was nervous to give it a go on my own. This “buddy system”, for want of a better phrase, is hugely importing to women. It’s a safety net. It’s a common purpose. It has meaning.
‘Today, I interact with these women on most days. More so off the hockey pitch than on. Not only do we celebrate birthdays, weddings and the arrival of babies together. We too, share each other’s grief, sorrow and sadness.
‘I call these women my friends. My family. My tribe!’
Living with a chronic illness is relentless. Nicky finds that one of the hardest aspects is dealing with people’s limited understanding about the female body.
‘The most challenging thing for me is people’s perception of the disease. There is this archaic idea that your time of the month is something that should be painful and cause discomfort. It isn’t!
‘Talking about it and raising awareness of the disease is the first step,’ Nicky adds. ‘This normalises the subject and gives others the opportunity and space to open up and talk.
‘One of the hardest things for me is the fact that because people can’t see it, they don’t understand it and they don’t know it’s there. This often leads to ignorance and judgement of a person’s ability or character.’
Nicky is all about breaking down barriers and stigma – she wants there to be a wider understanding of just how common endometriosis is, and how it can affect women’s lives.
‘We need to talk more about it and we need to raise awareness. For some women, they may never know they have it, but for others it will affect them every day, making the simplest of tasks a chore.’
Nicky knows that her commitment to staying active is a sign of strength – and she’s not about to give up what she loves any time soon.
‘Strong women are everywhere. We shine in different ways,’ says Nicky. ‘A sister. A daughter. A mother. An aunt. A partner. A friend. A teammate.
‘Women who challenge stereotypes, who fight for equal rights, who empower others around them and who lead the way. They are everywhere.’
Strong Women is a weekly series that champions diversity in the world of sport and fitness.
A Sport England study found that 40% of women were avoiding physical activity due to a fear of judgement.
But, contrary to the limited images we so often see, women of any age, size, race or ability can be active and enjoy sport and fitness.
We hope that by normalising diverse depictions of women who are fit, strong and love their bodies, we will empower all women to shed their self-consciousness when it comes to getting active.
Each week we talk to women who are redefining what it means to be strong and achieving incredible things.
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