by Dena Dyer
During a recent panel discussion for The Washington Post, actress Fran Drescher confided that it had taken her two years and eight doctors to get a correct uterine cancer diagnosis. She was an atypical patient, since her type of cancer usually happens to women who are post-menopausal or obese, and she was neither. So even though she knew something was very wrong, it was a long struggle to find a doctor who agreed. The good news, at least: “I was still in stage one, because my type of cancer was slow-growing,” said Drescher, now 59. “AND I was persistent to keep finding out what was wrong.”
Watch as Drescher tells her story to the reporters on Hollywood Today:
Drescher, who underwent successful treatments for her cancer, explains that others who are misdiagnosed or diagnosed late like she was might not be so lucky. And when a person goes without a proper diagnosis for a long period of time, it can have serious—even dire—consequences. “The reason that we lose loved ones is almost entirely due to late-stage diagnosis,” The Nanny star says.
Fran’s story is not unique, by any means. One of my best friends, Tina, underwent a heart transplant six months ago. Her heart had been badly damaged when she suffered a heart attack that went misdiagnosed as stomach issues—for nine days. She feels that if she had been a man with the same symptoms, it’s likely that she would have been taken more seriously (even though heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States today). When she spoke up about her heart, she felt ignored … and she nearly died.
Of course, she’s grateful that she was finally diagnosed and treated correctly, but now she faces a lifetime of serious medical issues and expensive anti-rejection medicines … all from doctors not taking her seriously.
Witnessing Tina’s ordeal and hearing about Drescher’s similar experience really drove home a healthcare notion I’ve believed in for years: we women need to have faith in what our bodies are telling us, even in the face of a medical opinion that says otherwise. Doctors are fallible, and they often see many patients a day. They simply can’t catch everything going on with every patient. And while most of the times it’s just human error, sometimes, unfortunately, they may even have prejudices or blind spots which affect the treatments they offer.
In my own life, I’ve had plenty of healthcare issues that bear witness to this, too. It took me several years and four physicians to get my Hashimoto’s thyroid disease properly medicated. I once had to “fire” an Ob/Gyn because she didn’t take my concerns about medication side effects seriously. More recently, I had several doctors dismiss my concerns when I told them about extreme fatigue I was experiencing, only to find out—thanks to a neurologist friend who recommended a sleep study—I also suffer from a mild form of sleep apnea. However, even when my results came back, I had to literally beg the doctor to give me a machine, because I was female, young, and not obese. Now, thanks to proper treatment (and a funny-looking mask I wear at night), I feel better than I have in years.
I’ve learned that it’s my job to persist until I get proper medical treatment. Sometimes, as in Tina’s or Fran’s stories, misdiagnosis can mean the difference between life or death. “We have a medical community that subscribes to the philosophy that if you hear hooves galloping, don’t look for a zebra, it’s probably a horse … But if you happen to be a zebra, you slip through the cracks,” Drescher noted. To help educate and empower other so-called Zebra patients to speak up, Drescher started a foundation called Cancer Schmancer.
Undoubtedly, it can be intimidating to argue with a doctor, especially if they argue back. They have all those years of study and letters behind their names, after all. But speaking up and giving voice to that feeling in your gut is important for even the least confrontational of us. Because no one knows our bodies like we do, and we are our own best advocates.
Consider this study, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, which found that the trustworthiness of our intuition is greatly influenced by what is happening physically in our bodies. Barnaby D. Dunn, of the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, U.K., asked people to attempt to win a card game they had never seen before. The game was designed with no obvious strategy to follow; rather, players were encouraged to listen to their intuition: “Each participant wore a heart rate monitor and a sensor that measured the amount of sweat on their fingertips. Most players gradually found a way to win at the card game and they reported having relied on intuition rather than reason. Subtle changes in the players’ heart rates and sweat responses affected how quickly they learned to make the best choices during the game.”
What does all of this have to do with advocating for your health? Well, Dunn discovered that the link between intuition and decision-making was stronger in people who were “more aware of their own heartbeat.” The study suggests that actively listening to your body is important—because sometimes it’s dead right.
So one of the best things you can do to become a stronger advocate for yourself? Get to know your body. Think about it as you go about your day. Ask yourself: What foods and medicines do I seem to react to? What kinds of movement are most beneficial? Which types of activities wear me out? Try keeping a health journal, in which you note what you eat and drink, how much you exercise, and how you feel emotionally. Does something hurt or feel “off”? Ask your physician to check it out … and if they won’t, go to someone else. If you’re still feeling ignored or pressured, enlist the help of a loved one to assist you in getting your feelings heard.
Of course, it’s smart to respect a doctor’s opinion, too. But the moral of my story (and my friend’s story and Fran Drescher’s story) is this: Don’t be afraid to ask for more tests, further blood work, a second or even seventh opinion. It could save your life.