Women’s Pain is Often Ignored, and in Cancer, That Can Be Fatal

It’s a story many women have heard before, and many have experienced it themselves.

You go to a doctor, or you go in for a procedure, and you are describing your pain. You know you’re feeling it, you know it’s hard to manage, you know it’s affecting your life. And yet, in many instances, it’s just not taken seriously. And further, when it’s pointed out, it’s considered just “not serious.”

Pain is not taken as seriously in women as it is in men.

A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2022 investigated how gender and race weighed in when someone went to a hospital with symptoms of cardiac arrest. Not only did they find that men were more likely to be assessed by a doctor, they also received medical attention more quickly than women. Outcomes were worse for women of colour.

In 2019, a HealthyWomen survey found that 36 per cent of women did not think their pain was being taken seriously by a medical professional. This is despite the fact that 90 per cent of the women surveyed had been diagnosed with a condition that caused their pain.

However, women are more likely to experience chronic pain than men. Around 70 per cent of chronic pain conditions are diagnosed in women. A study published in 2012 in Scientific American found that women report more intense pain than men, often for the same ailments. It is worth noting that the subjective nature of the subject makes it more difficult to quantitate.

But ultimately, women’s pain is not taken as seriously as men’s. So why is this?

A number of studies point to the perceived toughness of men and women. A paper published in 2018 entitled “’Brave Men’ and ‘Emotional Women’” identified that gender norms played into how each gender’s pain was received by their healthcare providers. The stereotype of women being emotional led to providers to think that women were overreacting. In contrast, stereotypical male toughness led to providers thinking that if a man were to complain about pain, it must be very serious.

Of course, this bias cannot be attributed to all healthcare providers. That being said, awareness of how gender roles influence medicine can teach us about how to advocate for ourselves as cancer patients and survivors. Speaking frankly with your oncologist about the type of pain you are in, and making sure it is taken seriously, can make all the difference, not only in quality of life but also in healthcare outcomes.

For women with cancer, ignoring pain can be fatal. Often a common cancer symptom is pain in the pelvic or abdominal area. Persistent pain that doesn’t react to regular treatment can be a sign of the condition, often accompanied by changes in appetite, weight, bruising, or irregular periods. These signs should not be ignored, not by you, or by your healthcare provider.

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