by Sarah Harris
I was 12 years old the first time a doctor suggested that my pain was “all in my head”. That was the beginning of my continuing battle to get people to take my health seriously. In 2016, during my second year of university, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Endometriosis. My condition was so advanced that it had spread to not just my reproductive organs but also my bowels and bladder. After a second, 7-hour surgery to fix what he could, my doctor said to my parents: “she must have been in pain for years.”
My story is just one of thousands. Endometriosis affects 1 in 10 women in the UK and is one of the most painful illnesses to live with according to the NHS, yet it takes an average of seven years for women to get a diagnosis. So why does it take so long? Pain in women has been normalised for so long, largely in part due to myths surrounding the female body that date back centuries.
Women are expected to be in pain and are often told to ‘just deal with it’ or that it’s ‘part of being a woman’ that we even start to doubt our own bodies when something is really wrong. It took me about six weeks of being unable to leave my room and missing lectures before I finally convinced my GP to send me to an emergency gynaecologist and even then, he was hesitant. I often wonder how different things would have been if I had been diagnosed earlier on in my youth. I probably wouldn’t have had to waste two years needing to get various surgeries and having to take a break from university. I probably wouldn’t have had to cancel on so many friends at the last minute or apply for extenuating circumstances for practically every deadline.
Thankfully, the media has raised some particular concern over this particular issue over the last few months and as a result, the government and healthcare boards are under increasing pressure to tackle disparity within patient treatment. As you read this article, we’re in Endometriosis Awareness Month, where dozens of my fellow sufferers are doing what they can to vocalise the severity and impact of the disease. Towards the end of the month, women in Cardiff will be marching through Queen Street to raise awareness about the disease.
“Women are expected to be in pain and are often told to ‘just deal with it’ or that it’s ‘part of being a woman’ that we evenstart to doubt our own bodies when something is really wrong”.
But why do we have to stomp through town in bright yellow shirts for our voices to be heard? Why don’t doctors understand that the pain we experience, be it related to endometriosis or not, is not just ‘in our heads’? Despite the fact that women tend to outlive men, studies have shown they in fact suffer from more health problems during their lifetime. Women’s health is one of the most underfunded departments in medical research.
Obviously, we can’t expect anything to change when doctors themselves barely understand the female body and the anatomy of these conditions. Since my diagnosis, I’ve had doctors suggest to me that having a child will cure me of my chronic illness or to try losing a little weight to see if it helps. All of these false claims that are based on no medical research and are often wildly inaccurate, can lead to women feeling hopeless and abandoning faith in the medical community.
Moving forward, the only real way to make change is by understanding our body and believing ourselves when we feel like something is wrong. We shouldn’t need to fight to be heard. But sadly, women have been shouting to get their voices heard for centuries now and the only way for things to change, is to continue doing so.