Advocating for Your Health as a Woman
- Megan Murphy Wolf struggled to receive her breast cancer diagnosis despite going to her doctor with a lump in her breast and a family history of the disease. Now, she wants other women to use her story as fuel in advocating for themselves when it comes to their health concerns.
- Sadly, we’ve heard many stories of women’s concerns being dismissed by doctors. That’s why being your own advocate can be key to getting a correct diagnosis and obtaining the best treatment possible while dealing with a diagnosis.
- One cancer survivor told SurvivorNet she recommends asking many questions, so doctors “earn that copay.”
Wolf is a survivor, but her grandmother, mother and sister have all faced breast cancer, too. She considers the disease to be “a shadow in [her] family.”Read More
Wolf’s symptoms worsened, and her lump started to swell and ache. But even when she went to a different doctor she was still dismissed.
“All that was said was, ‘Cancer isn’t painful, so this isn’t cancer,'” she recalled. “There was no order for a mammogram or any other tests, and I was told to come back in six weeks if it was still bothering me.”
“I was part of a continuing epidemic of doctors not believing women about our own bodies, and the impact historical misogyny has on both our health and economic outlook… There are far too many cases like mine.”
Fast forward six weeks, and Wolf’s health had only deteriorated further. Her “entire left breast was swollen,” and she was in pain.
“I demanded testing,” she wrote. “The tests came back quickly, but I didn’t need to see the results. The look on the technician’s face said it all: breast cancer.
“After many more tests, it was determined to be stage 3… I still often think about what if I’d been diagnosed when I first went to a doctor, rather than at a later, more severe stage, when the treatment wouldn’t have had such a huge toll on my health and my ability to work and raise my kids.”
Wolf underwent chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and radiation for treatment. All the while, she was driving great distances to receive the best possible care and still making time to work.
“And yet, as unlucky as I felt, I still knew that in this country, I was privileged to have health insurance so my cancer didn’t bankrupt my young family, to live within driving distance of a top-notch medical facility and have a car to get me there, and to have the type of job, and employer, where I could work on my laptop from the chemo infusion room,” she wrote. “Given the uncompassionate healthcare policies in this country, I know that far too many women have to make impossible choices with fewer options.
“Many women risk financial ruin, in addition to threats to their wellbeing, due to cancer; one report showed a staggering 43 percent of low-income women diagnosed with breast cancer will lose their jobs after treatment.”
And despite the fact that her worries were clearly valid, Wolf still struggles to find doctors that hear her out when she’s concerned about her health.
“Even now—as new aches and pains emerge—I struggle to find doctors who don’t immediately try to discount my fears,” she wrote. “What was once ‘you’re fine – you’re just worried about your mom’ has now become ‘you’re fine – you’re just paranoid about getting cancer again.’
“Well, yes, of course I am. Because I know how hard it is for women to be believed about our bodies.”
So, now her story is her rallying cry. And Wolf wants to encourage all women to push for answers when they know something is wrong.
“My advice? If your doctor isn’t taking your concerns seriously, seek out second, third, fourth opinions until you find someone who does,” she wrote. “In recent years, some Black women, who are disproportionately dismissed about their pain, have had success by requesting that their doctors document a refusal to order a certain test in their charts.
“Your doctor may reconsider ordering tests before they’re willing to put that in writing. While it shouldn’t require these tactics to take a woman’s concern seriously, we still have a long way to go to getting doctors to believe our pain. Cancer presents in numerous ways, and we need to bridge the final gap from awareness to action.”
How to Advocate for Your Health as a Woman
Megan Murphy Wolf’s story is, sadly, not the first of its kind. In fact, we’ve heard many women talk about how their health concerns were not taken seriously prior to a very serious diagnosis.
“For all the advocacy and fundraising that we’ve done, it’s gut-wrenching to realize that doctors don’t always take women and our pain seriously, the women who feel a lump and know something isn’t right,” Wolf wrote.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, April Knowles explained how she became a breast cancer advocate after her doctor dismissed the lump in her breast as a side effect of her menstrual period. Unfortunately, that dismissal was a mistake.
Knowles was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 39. She said the experience taught her the importance of listening to her body and speaking up when something doesn’t feel right.
“I wanted my doctor to like me,” she said. “I think women, especially young women, are really used to being dismissed by their doctors.”
Jenny Saldana is another woman who’s spoken up about advocating for yourself. She says she was told “you can’t keep coming back here taking up resources for women that really need them” when she was trying to get her breast cancer diagnosis.
“The squeaky wheel gets the oil,” she said as advice for others.
Evelyn Reyes-Beato feels similarly. As a Latina – like Saldana – and a colon cancer survivor, she urges people to “get knowledge” so they won’t feel intimated by their doctors. She wants to remind others that they have a right to ask questions and make physicians “earn that copay.”
Dr. Zuri Murrell, director of the Cedars-Sinai Colorectal Cancer Center, previously told SurvivorNet that healthcare guidelines are meant to do the right thing for the largest number of people while using the fewest resources.
“The truth is you have to be in tune with your body, and you realize that you are not the statistic,” he said.
Dr. Murrell says not every patient will “fit into” the mold, so it’s important to “educate yourself and be your own health care advocate.”
“Every appointment you leave as a patient, there should be a plan for what the doc is going to do for you, and if that doesn’t work, what the next plan is,” Dr. Murrell said. “And I think that that’s totally fair. And me as a health professional – that’s what I do for all of my patients.”