Putting Yourself First

When the aches and pains don’t go away, instead of wishing them away, it’s best to see a doctor before it’s too late.
BY: Sara Smola

African American doctor and patient talking in officeEvery time I board a plane, I’m reminded to put on my own oxygen mask before assisting others. It’s that same “put yourself first” mentality that doesn’t seem to be ingrained in women the way it is in men. Despite these progressive times, I can attest that I’ve bent over backwards to do the laundry, cook dinner, grocery shop and clean the house in order to take care of my fully abled husband, while working full time and juggling my own busy social schedule. My husband assures me that just because we eat more takeout than home cooked meals, that doesn’t mean I’m a horrible wife. Yet, I can’t seem to shake the guilt of not being able to “do it all.”

So, when faced with a health concern, I tend to ignore it because I rationalize that I simply don’t have time to deal with making and attending a doctor’s appointment. I’m notorious for postponing doctor’s visits “indefinitely”—which means I just wait it out until I feel better or, in one particular instance, until I landed in the emergency room with a life-threatening infection. When the doctor asked, “Didn’t you feel anything?” I told him I had chalked the sharp pain up to stress and that aside from the constant pain in my abdomen, I felt perfectly fine. From sharing my story with friends and relatives, I discovered they too, felt reluctant to visit a doctor for what they called “minor” pains or seemingly innocent symptoms.

doctor explaining diagnosis to her female patient“I think this is something that happens to women,” says Dr. Hilary Fausett of Pasadena’s Foothill Center for Pain Management. “I think that comes down to women somehow feeling they’re not worthy, that other people’s experiences are more important than ours and so we minimize our own role because of that self doubt, that sense that ‘I’m not worthy of going to a doctor.’”

When women feel unwell, we have a whole list of reasons (ahem, excuses) for the symptoms: too little sleep, not enough iron, hormone imbalance, dehydration, bad day at work or my personal favorite, stress. We downplay the drama, not wanting to burden our family for a seemingly innocent cold or mysterious aches that only hurt if you’re standing. “We don’t treat ourselves as well as we treat our family and our friends. We don’t ask for a favor that we’ll gladly give. We don’t trust what our body is feeling when we tell our friends, ‘You need to see a doctor for that.’ We’ll take our kids, husbands, life partners [to the doctor] but not ourselves,” Dr. Fausett points out.

No one likes being questioned about topics you’d only tell your best friend. Or being reminded that those extra 10 pounds are still sticking around, despite you promising the doctor you’d lose them by eating more vegetables and less cake. As Dr. Fausett relates, “The first one I notice is that people start to say that they’re lazy and that they’re not interested in things anymore. And, when I examine them, sometimes they actually have a critical pinching of their spinal cord and doctors are amazed. How can you have a critical pinching of your spinal cord and be so close to being paralyzed? Well, the body has slowed down and a woman, instead of saying, ‘Why am I having more pain and headaches, why can’t my body do what it’s been doing?’ starts to blame herself and says, ‘Well, I’ve been eating more cake, I haven’t been to the gym, I’m not sleeping well,’ and starts to feel embarrassed that she’s not following good health conditions. Your body has gone into survival mode to tell you not to move because if you fall, you could be paralyzed. When we’re looking at this picture of an MRI scan that shows how tightly pinched their spinal cord is, these women cry in complete disbelief. They have been blaming themselves—sometimes for 5-10 years—as this has progressed, rather than tell anybody.”

In some cases, women can be deterred from commenting on pain in fear of being told they are simply being too emotional and not tough enough. “One thing that happens commonly is women’s [medical] experiences can be devalued and even countermanded by the physicians they see. I had a patient who recovered from major cancer surgery and a year afterwards the surgeon who did the surgery told her there was no reason for her to be on continued pain medication,” says Dr. Fausett. “Well, we ordered some other tests and it turned out she was walking on an unstable pelvis. The way the surgeon had done the surgery, her pelvic bone hadn’t healed fully—and he knew that. So she went back with her family and asked this question of why did you tell me to walk around on a broken bone and he thought if she could tolerate that pain it would be better for her. With that information, she found a new physician who treated her problem and got her the surgery she needed.”

But, as always, the best way to nip a medical problem in the bud is to be proactive in regards to your health. If you have a doctor’s appointment you’ve been procrastinating about, do whatever you have to do to get to that appointment as soon as possible. An apple a day isn’t going to do you much good if you’re not getting checked out by a doctor, whether you have visible symptoms or not. “Right now in medicine, we have so many guidelines and doctors know for your age and other markers that are found, what tests need to be taken and we’re so good at finding things early. Women get sidetracked by weight and often feel they’re too big or too small and miss out on major health issues around that. Doctors are going to know for your age what lab tests you need, do you need a mammogram—and that ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

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