Adam Walker, Contributing Photographer

In an effort to raise awareness about endometriosis, Veronika Denner ’24 organized a screening of director Shannon Cohn’s new documentary “Below the Belt” at Luce Hall on Wednesday night. 

The documentary, set to be released on March 29, follows four women on their long and painful journey toward the diagnosis and treatment of endometriosis. Through the use of personal interviews, the film sheds light on the obstacles that these women have faced, including misdiagnosis, medical dismissiveness, 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 the organs outside of the uterus.  The condition can cause scarring, inflammation and adhesions between the organs, causing organ damage in the worst case. It affects one in every 10 women and diagnosis takes on average around seven to 10 years.

“There’s this misconception that endometriosis is only a reproductive disease, but endometriosis implants can be found on every single organ in the body,” Denner told the News. “Like for me, I had endometriosis in my urinary, digestive, and respiratory systems as well.  It’s really a whole body disease that can cause debilitating pain either chronically or at certain points of the menstrual cycle.”

Denner shared that she had to go on medical leave in March of 2022 because of endometriosis. At that point, she had had symptoms for almost three years, ever since her first year at the University. The symptoms got gradually worse to the point where she could barely get out of bed and would almost faint. Every doctor told her that there was nothing wrong with her and that the pain was just part of being a woman. She read up on the material and had to self-diagnose.

 She said that if she had not self-diagnosed, doctors “still would not know what was wrong with [her].”

Her personal struggles inspired her to reach out to Jenneh Rishe, one of the four women featured in “Below the Belt,” Cohn, and the outreach assistant of the team.  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.

Prior to the screening of the film, Denner delivered a speech to introduce the audience to the importance of the subjects discussed in the documentary.

“Unfortunately, my story is the norm rather than a tragic exception,” Denner said. “Endometriosis can be an absolutely debilitating disease that is as common among women as diabetes. But to this day, most doctors have never heard of it all around the world, and it receives hundreds of times less funding than equally prevalent diseases that also affect men.  Call me a little angry girl, but if there were a disease that caused 10 percent of all men to be in as much chronic pain and fatigue, I strongly believe that there would be more awareness and certainly more treatment.”

By showcasing different women’s stories, “Below the Belt” aimed to demonstrate the gaslighting, sexist bias, a lack of funding in women‘s health care and the dire impact these issues have on endometriosis patients.

Following the screening of the film, there was a panel discussion where experts delved deeper into the themes explored in the documentary.

“I was told I couldn’t take sick days and that my grades were going to be affected if I take those sick days even though my doctors and the disability office at USC had approved this for me,” said Gen Z chronic illness influencer Gigi Robinson.

Robinson, who was diagnosed with endometriosis in December of 2022, shared that after many visits with doctors she at first thought it was just her body reacting to her cycle, but the pain got continuously worse.  She said that she was going through this 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 this condition.

Dora Koller, a Yale Postdoctoral Psychiatry Fellow, discussed the connection between endometriosis and mental health in her research regarding the subject.

“We do research about psychiatric disorders so I wanted to understand the link 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 happens a lot with patients with endometriosis.”

Koller’s research on endometriosis revealed that while there were some publications on the topic, most of them had very low sample sizes. In an effort to address this gap, Koller aimed to conduct a big data analysis and compare her findings to previous studies. Her studies found a connection between endometriosis and anxiety and eating disorders.

She also noted that some researchers consider endometriosis a systemic disease, as it can not only affect the reproductive system but other bodily systems as well. Additionally, endometriosis can also have a significant impact on a woman’s ability to conceive. 

Another Yale Postdoctoral Fellow, Gita Pathak, praised Koller for her work in endometriosis research, as Koller herself has endometriosis. Pathak stated that many of Denner’s statements she had already heard verbatim from Koller, and that Koller is the brains behind many of the studies in regards to endometriosis. She praised these women who did so much research even after all their pain and referred to them as “endo-heroes.”

Yonghee Cho, an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the School of Medicine, talked about her experience working with endometriosis patients.

“A lot of times patients show up and they come with this myriad of diseases,” she said.  “They’ve often been told they have IBS, fibromyalgia and sometimes they’re told it’s psychological when in reality the answer is actually endometriosis. Patients are generally relieved and are excited when they land into my office and I tell them they might have endometriosis.”

When asked if she had been 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 they were also very limited.

The screening concluded with a closing statement from Denner, where she emphasized the importance of raising awareness about this disease. She said that everyone at Yale should know about endometriosis, and as a leading research university, Yale has a responsibility to find better treatment options. As many Yale students go into policy, Denner believes that it is extremely important to make sure as many Yale students learn about this condition as possible.

“Below the Belt” was executive produced by Hillary Clinton LAW ’73, Rosario Dawson, Corinne Foxx and Mae Whitman, all of whom had endometriosis, and will air on PBS on March 29.

Adam Walker is the University Editor of the Yale Daily News. He previously covered Yale Law School for the University desk. Originally from Long Island, New York, he is a rising junior in Branford College double majoring in Economics and American Studies.