Imagine experiencing intense pain, migraines, cramping, and bloating, and then going directly on camera to interview famous sports stars like Ronda Rousey, or lead impassioned debates about March Madness. Molly Qerim, host of ESPN’s weekday morning talk show First Take, does just that in front of over half a million viewers Monday through Friday. The 33-year-old sportscaster has built a dream career in a male-dominated workplace, but what many people don't know is that she's done all this while managing endometriosis, a reproductive health condition where uterine tissue (aka, the endometrium) grows abnormally outside the uterus.
When Qerim first began to experience symptoms, she had no clue what was causing her pain. After two ultrasounds and a laparoscopic surgery, Qerim’s diagnosis of endometriosis was confirmed when she was 26 years old. “I remember [the doctors] telling me ‘you have level four endometriosis’," Qerim tells Bustle. "I come from the sports world, so I’m thinking like, four out of ten — that’s not so bad. And then they said, ‘No, four out of four.’ The endometriosis was all over my body, and all over my organs,” she explains. Though an estimated one out of ten American women of reproductive age have endometriosis, many people don't know what the disorder is, and it can only be officially diagnosed through invasive surgery.
After her diagnosis, Qerim had to learn how to balance her career goals as a sports anchor and moderator with managing her new health condition. She says that she chose to “approach [endometriosis] almost like it’s any another job that I have to take care of and manage.” For Qerim, that meant making several lifestyle changes to better cope with her health condition. “My friends would always joke that I’m ‘the grandmother’ and ‘the homebody’ because I can’t stay up past nine o'clock, but a lot of that rest is so important for me,” she explains. “I have to make sure to get a good night’s sleep whenever I can, and sometimes I have to be really disciplined. There are games that I want to stay up and watch, so I just have to DVR them.”
Moreover, in addition to getting enough rest and exercise, Qerim adopted dietary changes to limit her consumption of foods that trigger endometriosis symptoms. “I pretty much don’t drink alcohol, and I’ve cut [out] most sugar. I have the world’s biggest sweet tooth, so that’s been challenging,” Qerim says. “I grew up on a pretty Mediterranean diet, so that’s what I try to stick to. I still eat totally normal, but just try to eat well, balanced, and healthy foods.” Qerim adds that while she wants to cut out caffeine, her hectic, early morning schedule has made quitting coffee an impossible endeavor for the time being.
Qerim also uses traditional Chinese medicine to manage her symptoms. “Acupuncture was a saving grace. It helps more than anything else I tried,” says Qerim, suggesting “everyone with endometriosis should give acupuncture a shot, at least once.” She also uses castor oil packs on her stomach to “help with the pain and inflammation” her endometriosis causes. Qerim has a pretty good grip on how to practice self-care to manage her endometriosis after seven years, but says the “ebb and flow” of having a chronic illness means she’s constantly reevaluating how she can best take care of herself. "I'd get in a really good groove [with managing my endometriosis symptoms], and I'd have really great energy. Then it would hit, and I'd have horrific pain. It's very frustrating that you can feel fine one day, but feel awful the next," she says. "It's a reminder you need to take care of your body, and you need to protect yourself."
"I come from the sports world, so I’m thinking like, four out of ten — that’s not so bad. And then they said, ‘No, four out of four.’"
From watching her on First Take, you’d probably never believe she struggled with her diagnosis, but, she says, “when I first found out [about my endometriosis], I didn’t really want anyone to know, because I was afraid they would hold it against me.” Qerim's current job has been extremely supportive of her taking time for her health when necessary, though she tells Bustle she's only taken time off following surgeries to remove the endometriosis. However, at another job, Qerim claims she was body shamed while taking hormone shots, another treatment for endometriosis, which can cause physical side effects. “At the time, that [body shaming] was crushing because I thought to myself, you don’t even know what I have to do to get here every day; sometimes I don’t leave my house all weekend so I can be here at work,” she says. “I think that’s why I was so scared to be open about having it.”
Opening up about your health needs at work may be anxiety-provoking, but in the long run, it's an important step towards breaking stigma as well as getting the support you need. “I hope people that have endometriosis understand that they’re not alone,” says Qerim. “We’re just starting to become more outspoken about it, and we’re creating more awareness, which I hope that drives more research. We no longer have to suffer in silence.”