Hey, how are you? How are you feeling? Where does it hurt? How badly—on a scale of one to ten?
We sense that you’re reluctant to answer these questions. Possibly because you’ve already gone through this spiel with your doctor earlier this month. Possibly earlier this week. Maybe this is the third or fifth time you’ve had to sit on that examination table—different office, with a different doctor, but always the same non-reaction. You retell—relive—the memory of experiencing that unrelenting, excruciating pain for the first time, describing every little detail, because even though you’d rather not revisit such unpleasantness, you never know what might be important. You never know what might be the missing clue that brings it all together, sparking a revelation that finally changes that uninterested look on your doctor’s face.
But no, this visit plays out the same way. Your doctor “listens” to your story and determines that you have nothing to worry about. You are a picture of perfect health, and the pain you’re feeling is totally normal. But if you are this upset, perhaps you should go shopping. Treat yourself.
You don’t want to go shopping. Not unless it’s for military-strength Tylenol to take away your pain, or a megaphone that can broadcast your cry for help to someone who will listen.
Does any of this sound familiar?
“I had severe stomach pain to the point of tears and went to urgent care (now I know I should have gone straight to the ER). The Male doctor that examined me said it was my period and to take 2 extra strength Tylenol. If I didn’t feel better in a few days, I should go to the ER.”—M.L (via Facebook)
“I was awakened in the middle of the night, pain was searing across my belly for a half hour. A week later at a pap exam, I told the doctor and the response was: ‘yes, period pain gets worse as you get older.’” —Jennifer Humphrey (via Facebook)
If any of these descriptors sound familiar—searing, excruciating, ‘eleven out of ten’—we are here to say that your pain is not normal. Doctors found a “baseball-sized tumor” in M.L.’s small intestine, and had to schedule her for emergency surgery. In Jennifer Humphrey’s case, she discovered, months after her pap exam, that she had “an inordinate amount of fibroids” and had to undergo two surgeries to remove them. The pain she felt that first night had been a contraction, her body’s attempt to push out the tumor on its own. “Period pain, my [peach emoji],” she writes.
Admittedly, yes, period cramps are real. 80% of all women have experienced them, at least once in their lifetime (and we at Hezalia still haven’t met anyone from that lucky, unaffected 20%). However, menstrual cramps are often used as a scapegoat, passing off legitimate, chronic health disorders as normal bodily functions. Within that 80% majority, 10% of women suffer from severe menstrual pain that goes beyond your run-of-the-mill cramp. This isn’t normal. It could be a sign of endometriosis, vulvodynia, or vaginismus, conditions that are often left undiagnosed for several years longer than necessary. You’re not going crazy, you’re not overreacting.
Eleven years of medical study be damned; your cis-male doctor doesn’t know what a “normal” period cramp feels like. Your female doctor also doesn’t know what your period cramps feel like. You, the individual who lives in this specific body, can sense the difference between normal and abnormal pain. Trust your instincts.
Why doesn’t your doctor listen? Why is it that you had to stumble on this piece of writing, in order to feel seen? Why did you have to find these answers through Hezalia, instead of through a paid, medically licensed professional?
The short answer is that . . . well, sexism is real, and it will always find ways to make a woman’s life more difficult. For one, we, as a society, assume that female pain is often exaggerated. In a study calledThe Girl Who Cried Pain, research observes that, because men are conditioned to suppress signs of weaknesses or physical pain in daily life, something must be truly wrong if one comes forward seeking medical help. Researchers note: “Women are more likely to seek treatment for chronic pain, but are also more likely to be inadequately treated by health-care providers, who, at least initially, discount women’s verbal pain reports.” This means that, while women are less likely to be believed, until they can “prove” that they are just as sick as their male counterparts. Even when faced with life-threatening medical conditions, women have to go the extra mile, in order to receive equal treatment.
Two, there seems to be an inherent belief that pain is an integral part of the female experience. This is partly true, which poses a unique challenge that men will never experience. As noted in The Girl Who Cried Pain, “Women more often experience pain that is part of their normal biological processes (e.g., menstruation and childbirth), in addition to pain that may be a sign of injury or disease.” This subconscious parallel between “womanhood” and “suffering” does not have to define your experience. The pain you feel doesn’t have to be a part of your reality.
To the women currently suffering, who relate to the stories mentioned here: Speak up for yourself. Be brave, be loud, and be persistent.
To the dismissive doctors: shut up and listen. Take a second to reflect on the places where your perspective might be limited, and how these unconscious gender biases may shape your judgement. The pain of not being seen, not being acknowledged, can take a physical and mental toll on one’s body. Wasting your patient’s time with a lazy diagnosis will come back to bite them—not you.
Finally, to the women who have shared their stories online, and with the Hezalia team: thank you for contributing to the conversation. Thank you for letting us represent your voice.
There is a doctor out there who will listen to you, who will believe you, and you can find them on Hezalia!
You can also find great women's health and wellness practitioners and products at www.hezalia.com
Hezalia: Be Seen.
Note: Submissions have been edited for length and/or clarity.