The Fight of Our Lives: Cancer, Health & Advocacy

2020 will go down in history as a challenging year due to Coronavirus. But it’s even more upsetting that when we think about how far medicine has come over the last two decades, we’re not doing a good job of keep women healthy. The fight to be seen is an ongoing battle for women in healthcare. In the United States, for example, the number of women dying from complications in childbirth are on the rise compared with other countries. American women are now four to six times more likely to experience significant health risks post-delivery than in European countries. And that rate is even higher for African American women. No wonder we often feel alone when it comes to our health! The truth is, if we don’t advocate for our health, we risk losing it.

A Long History of Gender Neglect

When it comes to disease, science has often ignored the role gender plays. Now, with the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, it’s becoming clear that certain diseases impact genders differently. Adding to the problem is the fact that science has held biases such as “female hysteria” leading to underrepresentation in medical journals for decades². Since symptoms present differently for females and the medical field has played down concerns with an attitude of “It’s all in your head” for years, women’s health is often misdiagnosed, missed entirely, or overlooked. Not to mention, most clinical trials and drug testing have historically been conducted on men. 

Trusting Our intuition

No one understands the subtle changes in our bodies more than we do—not our partners, not even our doctors. That’s why it’s so important to trust our gut feelings when something feels ‘off.’ Yet, so many of us are shy about bringing up difficult-to-explain symptoms to health professionals. The stories about women ignoring their gut-instincts are heartbreaking. And, we’ve all heard them. Take Elizabeth Vines’ case, who went to her family doctor when a lump in her breast grew to the size of a lemon, only to be turned away because, “cancer doesn’t grow like that.” In Vines’ story, she put it off even though she knew it wasn’t right. Eventually seeking treatment and finding a specialist, she discovered she had fully advanced breast cancer. After an aggressive treatment plan, she’s currently on the mend, but her tale is powerful. “You kind of learn to trust doctors and not question them. But now I’m the opposite. If I want something from a doctor, like a referral, I don’t give up on it. I’m not gonna take no for an answer.”

Our Healthcare, Our Needs Our health matters.

We cannot take it lightly. The founders of Know Your Girls outline 7 simple steps for being your own best advocate, among them, be prepared for your next visit to your doctor and take notes. Knowing your family history is also important. For Gina Favors, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 50, losing her mother at an early age to the same disease made her hyper-aware of the risks to her own health. Yet, she was still turned away by doctors when a new symptom (uneven breast fullness) appeared suddenly. It took not backing down and insisting on meeting with a specialist before she received her diagnosis. Now, an advocate for women’s healthcare, Favors insists that women need to stand up for their health when they know something is wrong.

Understand You Have Options

So, what happens when a sudden, scary diagnosis enters our world? When emotions start coming at us fast—an overwhelm of information, panic, fear—we must take time to understand our options. A powerful mission statement from HERA, the ovarian cancer foundation, states that “when a woman is diagnosed with ovarian cancer it is important that she feels empowered to seek the treatments that best fit her needs.” Whatever the diagnosis, seeking a health and treatment plan is a personal choice. There will be important decisions to make with health professionals along the journey. And we know these are deeply personal. 

Healthcare has a long way to go. We still face issues like access, affordability and bias, which is why women cannot take a passive role in personal wellness. We must advocate for the care we need, show up for ourselves and insist on medical attention when we know—intuitively, emotionally or physically—that something is not right. Our lives, quite simply, depend on it.

"When women take care of their health, they become their best friend." – Maya Angelou