Usually the first thing you notice when you come face-to-face with Penny McNamee is her mega-watt smile.
Always bubbly, even a sleepless night up with her three-year-old son Jack followed by a 12-hour day of filming won’t wipe the smile from the Home And Away actress’ face.
However this time, when New Idea sits down with Penny, she’s not smiling – in fact, she’s angry.
For more than 20 years, Penny has been harbouring a secret that has left her, at times, crippled – while also making it extremely difficult to give Jack a younger brother or sister.
‘In January I was diagnosed with endometriosis,’ the 35- year-old star reveals.
Despite affecting 1 in 10 Australian women, little is known about what causes endometriosis and the only way to diagnose the disease is through surgery, which Penny underwent at the beginning of the year.
‘I was taught from a very young age to be very discreet about my period and that it is a very embarrassing thing,’ Penny states.
‘I feel now, at age 35, really angry that that’s the way it is. I've lost years of having children and suffered through years of pain. I'm forcing myself to talk about it, but I think that's the problem.
‘For 20 years I would be out for three or four days a month. I would have to call in sick or miss school. I was taking an unhealthy amount of pain killers.’
The blonde actress, who plays Dr Tori Morgan on the beloved Channel Seven drama, explains that, unbeknown to her, she’s spent five years unnecessarily struggling with fertility issues.
‘We’ve been so blessed to have one beautiful little boy, but it did take a long time to conceive him and I really just got lucky,’ she explains.
‘I had endometriosis, but I didn’t realise I had it.’ It was when Penny and her husband Matt started trying for another baby, not long after Jack was born, that she realised something was wrong.
‘It was when we started trying for our second child that I went and got a whole lot of tests done,’ she recalls.
‘Even then, doctors can’t be sure you have this disease – they have to guess from your symptoms – and the only way to diagnose it is from surgery.
‘I took a long time to come around to having surgery because it seemed crazy for me to have surgery when I didn’t even know I had the disease.’
Fortunately for Penny, she did decide to undergo surgery, and the results have been life-changing.
‘My experience of life now is so much better,’ she says.
‘I have virtually no pain, and my day is not affected by having my period.’
And it’s also good news for her plans to have another child!
‘There is a huge percentage of women who do fall pregnant after having the surgery,’ she says, so it is no wonder Penny says she has her ‘fingers crossed’ that she will one day have another baby.
‘There is hope [now] and for me, it’s [so important] to make sure that women don’t lose years trying to fall pregnant like I did, not realising they have the disease,’ Penny tells.
‘It is near impossible to fall pregnant with it. You can – I did – but I was extremely lucky.
‘I feel so much empathy for women who are struggling to conceive. Every day I count my blessings that I have a child. But there’s a lot of heartache because I grew up in a big family and I always wanted a big family.’
Penny has four sisters – including former Packed To The Rafters star Jessica McNamee.
In sharing her story, the mum of one is hoping to ‘start a conversation’ about endometriosis in a bid to bolster funding for research.
‘Women need to have the conversation,’ she says.
‘And doctors need to be educated to find what the symptoms are. It’s a spreading and growing disease, so if you leave it, it gets worse and worse and worse.
‘I can help spread awareness and encourage others to go and get checked.
The symptoms are bad period pain that stops you from living your life, spotting before your period starts, family history, and infertility. I urge all women to talk to their girlfriends...’
For the full story see this weeks issue of New Idea, on sale now.
Home and Away fans - check out hot new podcast Binge List, which this week features a discussion of the latest from Summer Bay.