Disastrously dismissing women’s symptoms
Get posts in your inbox:
If you talk to individual doctors as colleagues and people, they mostly seem like lovely people: well-trained, knowledgeable, dedicated, determined to help. Almost all of the doctors I know personally are obviously admirable and competent, with just a couple exceptions that prove the rule.
Maybe my sample is skewed. Because this kind of thing just keeps happening, and it’s hard to square with “most docs seem admirable and competent”: “Doctors repeatedly told a woman stress was causing her symptoms. Then they pulled out a volleyball-size tumor.”
This is my second it-turned-out-to-be-cancer post lately, and last time I was careful to justify the risk of scaring readers (because these stories really can spook people). But this is quite different. The last story involved just one minor symptom that even the patient herself dismissed as trivial, while this time it’s several serious symptoms — “bloating, constipation, diarrhea and extreme pain” — and the patient was desperate for help. So it is weirder and worse that this problem was missed by multiple physicians. The story ends well, but it was still a diagnostic disaster that caused major suffering and distress. A poignant detail:
If Catton had been diagnosed before the pandemic, her parents would have dropped everything to fly thousands of miles to care for her, even if it was just for a week, she said. They would have taken her to appointments, run her errands and cuddled her.
Ovarian cancer is hard to diagnose, and perhaps we could be generous about the failure. But this wasn’t just a couple doctors that got it wrong: it was many. And it wasn’t just “I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” it was “I can’t think beyond the most obvious explanation,” over and over again. This was exemplified by the repeated prescription of antibiotics. So, this woman’s pain was effectively ignored by “good” doctors, professionals that probably would seem like terrific people if you met them socially or collegially. Why?
I think the best explanation is systemic sexism: she was meaninglessly reassured by physicians who struggled to take a woman’s symptoms seriously, and low awareness of a woman’s pathology … not because they are bad people or bad doctors, but because that bias is deeply baked into our culture.
Catton said that she’s gone back to her doctors to tell them they got it wrong and, in the process, made her feel voiceless. This time, they listened. Catton said they’ve been responsive to her criticism and agreed to go through ovarian cancer awareness training to help them spot symptoms in the future.