Hysterical Women of the Fortnight: 28 April

Back after the Easter break, here’s our weekend roundup of sexism in women’s health

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On Hysterical Women we talk a lot about doctors and their failings: doctors who’ve missed things; doctors who’ve dismissed and disbelieved women; doctors who’ve misdiagnosed us, or denied us proper treatment. From the beginning I’ve been clear that, as a blog, we’re not anti NHS and we’re certainly not anti doctors. Many doctors are brilliant, over worked, and under resourced, but they’re also working in a system where sexism and the idea of hysteria are deeply ingrained.

So in this weekend’s roundup I want to start by talking about a recent viral Twitter thread in which a medical student highlighted all the instances of #EverydaySexism she’s encountered while training to be a doctor.

As The Metro reports:

Hannah Yard says she was called ‘blondie’ for a week and was warned she needed to ‘dye her hair brunette to be taken seriously’.

The 24-year-old also says she was told to make sandwiches, constantly mistaken for a nurse and was repeatedly called ‘good girl’ when she answered questions correctly, despite no similar term being used for the men on her course.

Hannah even says she gave up on her dream of being a surgeon because she was told by a registrar surgeon: ‘It was nice to finally have something to look at across the operating table.’

Hannah finished the thread by tweeting: ‘Sexism in medicine is still very much an issue, and something that shouldn’t just be accepted as “a joke”.

So, with that context in mind, here’s a the rest of the news from this fortnight…


Can women trust drugs only ever tested on men?

The Daily Mail last week looked at the long-standing issue of women being prescribed drugs that have only ever been tested on men – and, in particular, the impact this has had on pregnant women over the decades:

For years there has been an assumption that — as medics have long joked — women are simply ‘men with boobs and tubes’ who will respond to drugs in the same way as men.

Drug-triallers simply hoped pregnant women — or, rather, their unborn babies — would react in a similar way to men.

Yet the differences between male and female bodies can strongly alter the efficacy and potential side-effects of drugs.

Large population studies show women suffer significantly more serious adverse reactions to medicines than men. Often this is because they are taking recommended doses based on male bodies, even though they are generally smaller and their metabolisms may excrete the drugs more slowly.

That women tend to have more body fat than men can cause serious changes in their response to medicines, particularly drugs that are soluble in fat and so are likely to stay in their systems for longer.


Teenager told she may never have kids after docs miss signs of endometriosis – blaming it on ‘heavy periods’

A classic endometriosis story in The Sun, which echoes the experience of recent guest blogger Kaye Sedgwick Jones:

A TEEN has finally been diagnosed with endometriosis after agonising cramps and heavy bleeding was dismissed by doctors as a “bad period”.

Kate Robertson, 19, was in so much pain that she ended up having to go to hospital – but was sent away again with no answers.

She says that she felt as though “no one understood”.

“The people who you’re meant to trust the most with your health are doctors. You’d think that they would do anything to get to the bottom of what was wrong with an 18-year-old girl in chronic pain.

“After being in hospital a few times and sent away with a ‘bad period’ and some Panadol, I went to my GP and she was the first person to suggest I had endometriosis.”


27-year-old woman who was ‘too young for cancer’ survived a stage three tumor that took up her ENTIRE breast

The Daily Mail reported recently on the story of Emily Piercell, whose doctors told her she was “too young for cancer” and refused to do a biopsy on a lump in her breast.

“But when the mass tripled in size,” The Daily Mail reports, “she demanded a biopsy which revealed stage three cancer, inspiring her to trail blaze a program to help young women advocate for themselves – and to teach doctors to listen.”


What It’s Like To Discover You Were Born Without A Womb

I’ve followed The Pants Project on Instagram for ages, so I was interested to read this piece on its founder, Natasha Bishop, on Huffington Post. As a teenager, when Natasha was the only one of her friends whose periods didn’t start, she was understandably concerned. But doctors repeatedly dismissed her, saying “it will come”, and refusing her requests for tests to be done. Eventually, she was diagnosed with a rare condition that means she was born without a womb and will be unable to have her own children.

After breaking her wrist while playing hockey at 16, she saw a pregnant woman in hospital – “it was almost an epiphany moment,” she explains. “I realised that was never going to be me unless I had a period. I started doing my own research and googled every possibility for why I might not have had one,” she says.

“I think doctors underestimate how much intuition a 16-year-old has about their own body,” she says. “People saw me as still a child, but I always knew that there was something that was amiss. I think if I’d been taken more seriously, I would have felt like less of a freak when I got my diagnosis.”


Sexual dysfunction cuts risk ‘leaving thousands in UK without help’

The Guardian this week reported that women will be particularly affected by cuts to sexual dysfunction services, because of a lack of ‘quick fixes’ like Viagra:

Experts say funding cuts to sexual health clinics and clinical commissioning groups have led to the decommissioning of services that tackle sexual dysfunction. This, they say, is leaving men and women with dwindling support for problems ranging from erectile trouble to pain during sex – a situation that not only impacts people’s quality of life, but could mean they miss their chance to start a family.

They say the situation could be particularly problematic for women.

“Whereas many men’s distressing issues relate to erectile problems, for which there are pills like Viagra, there isn’t that option to just have a quick fix, buy a pill, for women, and their treatment options are sometimes less clear, more complicated and require more time and more discussion than a GP can offer – meaning specialist services are often needed,” said Dr Kirstin Mitchell, a researcher on intimate and sexual relationships at the University of Glasgow.


‘Infertility Doesn’t Discriminate’, So Why Are Women Of Colour Suffering In Silence?

Huffington Post published an important piece this week, looking at the overwhelmingly white and middle class narrative around infertility, and how this excludes women of colour from the conversation.

Last year, Yvonne John launched a two-day event alongside the organisation Gateway Women for women of colour who are childless not by choice. Speaking to women affected, she heard that the default imagery in leaflets and brochures for fertility treatments can discourage some from seeking help.

“We feel as if black people/people of colour do not experience fertility issues,” she says – adding that poor representation fuels stereotypes. ″[The idea] that black people are hyper-fertile breeding machines means that our problems with fertility can be dismissed, resulting in a lack of conversation or acknowledgement that WoC have problems conceiving.”

This is despite the fact studies indicate black women suffer from higher rates of fibroids, which can affect fertility, and research that suggests black women are almost twice as likely to experience infertility than white women.

Also on the subject of fertility:

  • Fat women are denied IVF on NHS for ‘no reason – it’s just as effective if you’re overweight’ – The Sun
  • IVF clinics exploiting older women by ‘trading on hope’ says fertility watchdog – Independent


#NotaShrinkingViolet

When it comes to cervical screening, I spend a lot of time banging on about the fact that “embarrassment” isn’t the only reason why women don’t go for their smear tests. One of the many other reasons – under-resourcing and inadequate access to appointments – was highlighted in a recent protest by the Women’s Equality Party.

As The Daily Mail reports:

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has been bombarded on Twitter with images of flowers made to looks like female genitalia by campaigners demanding better access to cervical screening.

In what was branded a ‘public cervix announcement’ the artwork showing violets in the shape of vulvas were sent to the minister in charge of the NHS today using the hashtag #notashringkingviolet.

The campaign, backed by the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) and two cancer charities came after a Daily Mail poll revealed that almost half of women have delayed life-saving cervical cancer tests because they could not get an appointment at their GP surgery.

Experts said the procedure was becoming increasing ‘inaccessible’ due to a shortage of available slots at under-pressure surgeries.


And finally…

Refinery29 this week published an extract from Maya Dusenbery’s brilliant book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick:

Though the post-Freud shift to attributing unexplained physical symptoms to the mind has been perhaps the most important barrier to increasing knowledge of many women’s conditions over the last century, when it comes to disorders that affect women’s reproductive and sexual functions, an even older bias has been at play: medicine’s tendency to treat women’s illness as perfectly normal.

Indeed, these are the two contradictory extremes that medicine has tended to vacillate between: either women’s reproductive functions are pathologised as innately abnormal—in which case any symptoms they bring are “normal”—or else it is claimed that they’re normal, so if they cause symptoms, it’s only because an individual woman’s response to them is abnormal—she’s just especially sensitive or overreacting. In short, either all women are sick, or some women are crazy.

Today, medicine seems to have generally settled into a position that manages to incorporate the worst of both worlds: it’s considered “normal” for women’s reproductive functions to be a bit abnormal—and if it’s really bad, well, maybe it’s all in your head.

You can read my Q&A with Maya Dusenbery here, and read the rest of the book by buying it here (out now in paperback!)

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