On Monday, I wrote about a brilliant comic by artist and author Aubrey Hirsch which detailed the problems she’d had being diagnosed with Graves’ disease. It took her five years for doctors to test her thyroid when she kept coming to them because of her weight loss, fatigue and irregular periods because they assumed she had anxiety, IBS or an eating disorder. By the time she was diagnosed she had permanent damage to her heart, eyes and bones.
It was a simple yet heartbreaking example of how women are treated like they don’t know their own bodies by the people they’re supposed to be able to rely on for help. As I wrote earlier this week, research has shown over and over again that doctors on the whole don’t take women and their pain seriously. Of course, doctors cannot always been right – and, equally, neither can we. Sometimes the answer is, simply, anxiety. But increasingly studies show that there are assumptions being made about women, which are undermining our health. And often doctors don’t believe she is actually experiencing the level of pain she says she is, instead appropriating a woman’s physical pain as a mental or emotional issue.
Since Monday, women have been sharing with us their own stories of not being taken seriously by doctors, and their experiences certainly back up the research. Abbie also had Graves’ disease, but was told for nine months that it was post-natal depression. It wasn’t until she had a thyroid storm (a life threatening situation where heart rate, blood pressure and temperature become dangerously high) and was rushed to hospital that doctors tested her to find out what was actually wrong.
Serious problems being dismissed as “normal” pain related to childbirth, pregnancy and periods was a common theme, actually. Dolly told of how her “sister's appendix burst and she got blood poisoning after her doctor told her it was 'just period pain’”, Corina was diagnosed as having bad PMS when she actually had a serious blood clot in her brain, while Sarah and Deli were both told that their severe pain from endometriosis was merely psychosomatic.
Elsewhere, emotions were being used to explain away all sorts of physical problems. Anxiety was initially given as a reason for Elizabeth’s blood clots in her legs and lungs, Birdie’s stomach ulcer, and even the piece of wood stuck inside Isabel’s foot. Meanwhile, Sophie asked for antidepressants but was told her severe symptoms were “probably nothing to do with the fact that my daughter was stillborn a few months earlier and more to do with the fact that I was a woman and women tend to be more emotional in general. It would pass”.
Another theme was medical professionals insisting that they knew more about the woman’s body than she did. When Sophie was in labour with her third child, she kept telling midwives that she was in serious pain but they told her to “expect labour to hurt, just put up with it”. After 20 minutes they grudgingly checked her progress; she was 7.5cms dilated and her daughter was born 20 minutes later. Tania’s family have had issues with their internal organs being in strange places and she has a double appendix scar because when they tried to take it out, it wasn’t where they expected it to be. However, whenever she goes for an operation and explains this beforehand she’s treated like she’s delusional and operations inevitably take longer that they need to – longer than they would if they just listened to her own experiences with her own body.
But if it’s bad getting doctors to take you seriously when you’re a woman, it’s even worse when you’re young. Kim was told for six months that her symptoms were down to “Finals anxiety”, when actually she had bladder cancer. Hannah was told at 23 that she was “too young” to have cancer; spoiler alert, she absolutely wasn’t. Emma went to the doctor with digestive issues and was diagnosed with an eating disorder, but she actually had Crohn’s disease – and actually, Crohn’s being initially diagnosed as IBS, period pains or eating disorders came up again and again.
Four doctors diagnosed Mark’s niece with everything from putting her symptoms on to skive off to eye strain; turns out, she had a brain tumour the size of a golf ball. But most tragical was the story of Claire’s niece, whose GP put her symptoms down to “attention seeking due to a school change”. Shortly afterwards she went into a diabetic coma and died. She was 11 years old.
There’s a saying in the medical world: "When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses not zebras”. It means that when a patient presents with symptoms doctors should look for the most common explanation rather than a more exotic one. It’s sound advice, but not when it means that doctors see a woman and decide her symptoms must be down to her being a woman. Not when they listen to a woman complaining of health problems and immediately decide that her symptoms are either to do with her emotions/her menstrual cycle or being exaggerated because that’s just what women do.
Stereotypes of what women are are frustrating when it comes to representation in media and hold us back at work, but when it comes to our health these stereotypes are putting us at serious risk and, in some cases, literally killing us. It’s time for medicine to start trusting women when we say that there’s something wrong, trusting us to know when the pain we’re feeling is more than period cramps or anxiety, and get rid of these old notions of us being over dramatic and too sensitive when it comes to our health. Not only is that the only way to show us the respect we deserve, it might just save our lives.