Gender and Chronic Illness

Most abled people assume that if you get sick there will be a doctor there full of empathy and ready to save the day – this however is not the narrative of many people who have chronic illnesses.

While I personally have never been straight up told I’m faking it, it’s been implied and stated multiple times that I was being dramatic or “just had anxiety.” I feel like it’s important to note that every time this has happened, it was coming from a man. I came to the realization a long time ago that a lot of medical professionals see me as a teenage girl who’s over dramatic and just wants to get a few days off school. This profiling happens before I open my mouth and once that decision has been made in their mind it is nearly impossible to change it.

Many people who end of being diagnosed with endometriosis or ovarian cysts are told that it’s “just their period” and that they need to learn how to deal with cramps.Women and feminine presenting people are disproportionally targeted when it comes to doctors disbelief of their symptoms. Men and masculine presenting people on the other hand often try to “tough it out” and don’t go to the doctor until long after it’s necessary due to being afraid of not “taking it like a man” ; or they do go to the doctor and the doctor essentially tells them to “man up.” These gender stereotypes are incredibly harmful, especially within the medical world.

Back in February of this year I had an electrophysiology study, and the experience was less than pleasant. After the study I had a reaction to the medication they gave me to speed up my heart rate, and my whole body began to tremor. A rapid response team was called and all of the nurses were visibly concerned, and knew something was wrong. The doctor who came in however, was super nonchalant about everything and left the room while I was still having the tremors.

Later the next morning when my doctor (at the time) came to see me he said he thought I had anxiety and that’s why the whole incident occurred. Obviously that was not the case, and he just didn’t want to figure out what is actually wrong with me. There are two conclusions I’ve drawn from this situation: 1) because I’m a teenage girl he thought I was being dramatic, 2) it was going to take time and testing to figure out what’s wrong with my heart (plus I’m considered a “complicated care”) so my situation would not be easy money for him.

This is just one of many events where men downplayed my symptoms / disability and reduced me to “just an anxious teenage girl.” Not all chronic illnesses are created equally and not all experiences with chronic illness are the same. Gender and Sex can be a huge factor is getting a diagnosis, even when your illness has nothing to do with either of those. Have you ever had a bad medical experience due to your gender? Did gender or sex affect your diagnosis process?

 

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18 thoughts on “Gender and Chronic Illness

  1. I got told so many times that my tachycardia was just anxiety or me exaggerating. I finally persuaded a doctor to refer me to a cardiologist, who nearly had his eyes pop out of his head when I told him that my heart regularly went up around 170 bpm when I hadn’t recently exercised. I’m a pretty tiny, slender 20-year-old girl who was a dance major at school, so I was super in shape. Turns out I have a heart condition (IST)… (ಠ_ಠ) @ all my previous doctors lmao

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    1. I meant to say something about my gender in the oops lol. Basically I got straight up brushed off a lot, and it was always male doctors, so that felt G R E A T

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      1. I have IST too so I know the struggle. My current electrophysiologist still will say, my heart rate and low blood pressure aren’t *that bad* even when my heart rate reaches 200 from walking up the stairs. I’m constantly painted as a dramatic teenage girl, which can be infuriating.

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  2. I have endometriosis and have had the opposite experience. For most of my experience, it’s my male doctors (predominantly my male GP) who have taken my pain most seriously. There have been a few exceptions to the rule but that generally seems to be how it goes. BUT I think gender has still played a big role in why the female doctors I’ve seen have taken my endo less seriously. Most of the female doctors I’ve seen have assumed that my greatest problem with my endo would be the possible inability to have children, and while that’s something that upsets me, I’m much more worried about the pain and fatigue stopping me from working now than possibilities of children in the future. They seem to think that as long as I have my period, I should be happy. Pain is accepted as a regular part of being a woman. My male doctors are more concerned with the pain, as they think being pain-free is more important than fertility. Many of the women I’ve encountered with endometriosis or similar conditions in my city have had similar experiences, but nowhere else. It’s really odd.

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    1. That’s interesting! Sexism in medicine can definitely go both ways. The vast majority of my personal experiences have been with male doctors, but in an emergency room I once encountered that kind of behavior from a female doctor. I went in due to horrendous cramps (probably caused from switching birth controls too much) and excessive bleeding. She insinuated I was being dramatic and accused me of having a miscarriage even though I was as only fourteen and already had an extensive medical history. It’s weird that the female doctors you’ve seen have been so fixating on you being able to get pregnant. I would think for many women, myself included, that quality of life trumps the ability to get pregnant any day. How are you supposed to care for a child if you can’t move you’re in so much pain? Not to mention many people don’t want children. I’m sorry you’ve encountered such awful doctors!

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      1. Thank-you! A lot of my early experiences with female specialists were similar to the one you described, particularly with the assumption I was exaggerating. I don’t know why the presumption has always been that the ultimate goal would be children, rather than having a manageable amount of pain or being pain-free. I’m of the same opinion as you, I’d prefer to have quality of life, as I don’t feel I’d be able to properly raise my child without it. Thank you, and I’m sorry for your awful experiences too. Endometriosis is truly awful!

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  3. This is so true!! I can also confirm that doctors that are women tend to go deeper when trying to find out what’s going on. When I talked about how painful my periods are to my male doctors, they wrote it off, especially when we added in my tanked ferritin levels. My female hematologist straight up told my mom and I that male doctors always write it off as part of our periods. My female gynecologist looked me in the eyes and said, “We’ll look into this together and find out what’s going on.” I nearly cried happy tears in both of those appointments!

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  4. Alyssa, I really understand what you mean! People have made those same comments about me and it is just frustrating. It is hard, but best to not give these people the satisfaction that they are bothering you. Most people do not know what others are going through in life and it is best to explain to them what we deal with. But, once you explain it numerous times, it feels like it is falling on deaf ears. Doctors do make assumptions about things, which is so frustrating but it might also be they just do not know what else to do. Not a great excuse, I know. I hope things get better!!!! Stay being your same wonderful self no matter what!

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    1. Thank you Alyssa! I also think doctors often don’t know what to say or do. To me the appropriate response would be to admit that, so I could look for help elsewhere, but when egos come into play admitting ignorance ins’t going to happen most of the time. You’re right, the only thing you can do is try to explain. Once it becomes obvious they don’t want to listen, you just have to move on sometimes.

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  5. I am also chronically ill and considered “complicated care”. I have experienced similar problems, especially because CRPS is an invisible illness. If I didn’t have extensive burn scars, I think I’d run into a lot more disbelief. Some of the disbelief I have encountered has come from women, but the majority of the time and the worst cases have been committed by men. For example, once I was admitted to the hospital because my legs suddenly stopped working. My back muscles were spasming so much the nurse couldn’t do a spinal tap to test for causes. The male hospitalist then told my father he “couldn’t find an organic cause” (translation: its all in her head) and kicked me out of the hospital as fast as he could. This was enormously damaging as my father then began to believe I was exaggerating and/or faking and could not be convinced otherwise. Another time I was trying to get psychiatric help when I was suicidal. When I told the program director I’d started feeling suicidal in high school (I had actually attempted to end my life multiple times in high school), she dismissed this as mere “teen angst” that “everybody goes through”. My mom agreed. I did not enter the program. I believe gender played a role here because I was painted as a dramatic young woman, exaggerating her feelings. Even though I recounted my attempts in detail. This sort of pigeonholing is bad medicine, particularly when you don’t fit into their boxes. Thanks for bringing attention to it.

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    1. I’m so sorry you’ve had to experience this as well, especially when it comes to trying to get psychiatric help. The trope of “exaggeratory young woman” can be incredibly harmful when trying to help help for chronic illness. I’m sure the stigma of mental illness also makes receiving adequate medical care difficult.

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      1. Indeed. I should clarify that the incidents I mentioned happened before I embraced my gender fluidity, which has come with its own set of challenges (like not having any space for genders other than male or female [and notice how male always comes first!] on medical forms). It’s super frustrating. I’m glad you’re shining light on this issue and it always helps to know you’re not alone.

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