Advocating for Your Health

It is so important for women to advocate for their health. Sure it’s important for everyone, but women are still not taken seriously when they describe their symptoms. They are often made to feel as though they don’t understand their own bodies. There are far too many stories in the news about women who went to doctors asking for help and were told that they must be getting their symptoms wrong, or that it would pass. Even worse though is “Are you sure it’s not all in your head?” 

Here are just some recent examples of these issues in the news:

Women said coronavirus shots affect periods. New study shows they’re right. (Washington Post Article)

‘Multiple Doctors Dismissed Me Because I Was Young And ‘Looked Healthy.’ In Reality, I Had PCOS’ (must be a Women’s Health+ Member to access) 

College Student Diagnosed with Cancer After Doctors Dismissed Her: ‘People Need to Speak Up for Themselves’ (People Magazine)

Additionally, it is well documented that women of color and from marginalized groups struggle even more to be taken seriously. One example of this is in pregnancy and infant mortality rates. Black women between the ages of 30-34 are 4xs as likely as white women in the same age group to experience pregnancy-related mortality. Recently, a story of a woman who asked for help during labor, but was ignored and died, circulated and reminded us all that the treatment of women of color in medicine is still unacceptable. More on this story and advocating for racial inequity in health care can be found here: Black Women for Wellness and Black Women for Wellness Action Project Express Outrage About the Untimely Death of April Valentine

There are a lot of seemingly funny stories and videos shared online of men being hooked up to machines that simulate period cramps and labor pain. The reactions of the men in these videos are always signs of excruciating pain. Except, it isn’t funny. It is just a reminder that for people to believe that women are in pain, a man must validate that experience. It is a very real and very pervasive cultural issue. A 2018 review of 77 medical publications, found that when presenting with chronic pain men were seen as “brave” while women were treated as though their condition was related to mental health rather than physical pain.

When I was a teenager, I had chronic stomach pain. I went to several doctors (my parents took me). No one seemed to have an answer. They just wrote them off as stomach aches and sometimes as menstrual cramps (which I was being treated for by my gynecologist). Finally,  when I was telling my gynecologist about my stomach pains, and how no other doctor could explain it, he sent me for an ultrasound (which no one else had done). I had gallstones. Gallstones are not uncommon, although I was young to have them, I also had a family history. No one even considered that until my Ob/Gyn, who was not a specialist in internal or general medicine, sent me for that ultrasound. Then I got the care I needed and eventually had the gallstones and my gallbladder (that had polyps) removed.

As a counselor who works primarily with women, I hear stories from my clients about instances when doctors do not take their symptoms seriously. It is frustrating and certainly affects their self-worth and ability to trust not only their own body but the medical profession. Although as women we shouldn’t have to work harder to advocate for our healthcare needs or make strategic plans for how we want to approach our healthcare, the statistics show that it is necessary. So here are some ways that you can advocate for yourself when it comes to your well-being and health:

  1. Get second opinions – it isn’t disrespectful, it is an expectation. This is about your health, not the ego of your doctor. If you fear getting a second opinion will affect how your doctor might treat you in the future, you should probably just get a new doctor anyway.
  2. Challenge doctors who are gaslighting you; this goes hand-in-hand with trusting your gut. If you know your body and you know something isn’t feeling right, keep pushing and asking questions. No one knows your body better than you do. No one. 
  3. Keep track of symptoms. As women, we often keep track of our menstrual cycle, but symptom tracking can be important for diagnosing. Things like how often you get headaches, where you feel the headaches (I learned this when I struggled with migraines), what side your stomach pain is on, how many times a day you go to the bathroom, etc. 
  4. Push doctors who blame all of your ailments on a need for more exercise or weight loss. It is common knowledge that there is an issue with weight bias in medicine and while it could be part of a treatment plan, it should not be used as a weapon against you when you are suffering or in pain. 
  5. Keep your medical records and keep track of your visits. Some healthcare providers make this easy by using systems that keep everything in one place. But that is not always the case. So ask for copies of your records and keep them in a safe place. This is important when you go to new doctors, seek second opinions, or when you need to refer back to past medical procedures, medications, or diagnoses. 

Don’t be afraid to ask more questions – it is your health!

This post is not intended to provide medical advice, substitute for the expertise of a medical professional, or diagnose any conditions.