For nearly a year, Heidi Richard’s severe and worsening pain was dismissed as anxiety and mono.
After demanding a scan, she learned she had advanced cancer and continues to undergo treatment.
“Medical gaslighting” is when clinicians dismiss symptoms, deny tests, and ultimately misdiagnose patients.
Heidi Richard, a 47-year-old elementary school teacher in Worcester, Massachusetts, is a lifelong runner who’d always been healthy. So she knew something was wrong in spring 2019 when she started experiencing severe stomach pains, vomiting, and night sweats.
At the doctor, though, she was told her symptoms were just stress or anxiety. She was given an antacid and sent on her way, she wrote for Today.com.
Richard’s pain and vomiting did not subside, and she unintentionally lost 30 pounds. “I was trying to eat, but I was just unable to – I was just getting so sick,” she wrote. This time, doctors chalked it up to mono, despite testing negative for the infection. They told her to keep taking the antacid and prescribed anxiety meds.
Richard’s symptoms intensified, and she developed back pain and neck swelling. When doctors tried to give her a muscle relaxer for what they brushed off as a pulled muscle, she demanded an imaging test.
The diagnosis: stage 4 diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which had spread to her abdomen, spleen, bone marrow, sternum, lungs, groin, and neck.
“Doctors kept saying, ‘Oh, it’s anxiety or you can not handle the stress of your job or you’re overreacting. It’s not a big problem,'” she wrote. “I do not feel like they would have said those things to me if I had been a man.”
Richards underwent chemo, got a stem cell transplant, and continues to receive immunotherapy once every three weeks. On April 18, she’ll run the Boston marathon, albeit more slowly than her past races. She’s speaking out to encourage other people to listen to their bodies.
“Know what your baseline is and when something is wrong, do not be afraid to ask for a second opinion or ask for that test,” she wrote. “Don’t be afraid of sounding like a hypochondriac – that’s what I was afraid of and luckily I spoke up when I did, because finally I had enough.”
Other women have been coming forward with stories of “medical gaslighting”
Medical gaslighting describes when medical professionals dismiss a person’s symptoms, deny tests or treatments, and ultimately misdiagnose them. Women are especially vulnerable to the experience.
Since medical literature largely focuses on how symptoms present in white men, students and doctors might not know how to spot these signs in other patients.
Women patients also tend to wait longer for cancer and heart-disease diagnoses than men, The New York Times reported. One study found that younger women were two times more likely than young men to have a medical expert give a mental-health diagnosis when their symptoms pointed more to heart disease.
Chloe Girardier, 23, is one victim of medical gaslighting. She said she sought a doctor’s appointment after a persistent cough but was denied at first because it was “just a cough,” The Sun reported.
After five months and seven doctor’s appointments with no answers, Girardier – who by then had begun losing weight for no apparent reason – said she insisted on a chest X-ray. The scan revealed a 4.25-inch mass in her chest that turned out to be Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare cancer that required her to undergo intensive chemotherapy.
“I can not believe it was not looked into further, and if I had not pushed for the chest X-ray, I may still not have a diagnosis,” she said.
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