years ago I had exploratory gynecological surgery that I was sure I didn’t need. I was scared to death, strapped to tubes, and as the hospital orderlies led me into the freezing operating room, I thought, Why did I ever agree to do this?
I was in my 40s and taking hormones prescribed by my OB/GYN for hot flashes. After a year, he suggested I switch to a newer medication, which I did, but almost immediately developed vaginal bleeding.
I was sure the new drug had caused it, but my doctor disagreed. After performing the appropriate operations tests, he insisted that I needed exploratory surgery immediately to see what was going on.
It is important to note that my doctor was worried about ovarian cancer, and if he had been right, he could have saved my life. But he was not. The surgery found no cancer. I took my old hormones back and the bleeding stopped.
I’m still ashamed of not having listened to my instincts.
I had several options besides surgery that I could have pursued first, but didn’t. I could have gone back to my old meds to see if the bleeding stopped. I could have done my own research on the new drug so I could at least present the doctor with research-based evidence, not just my firm belief. I could also have gone for a second opinion.
I’ve since spoken to over 40 women about my experience, and by listening to their stories, I’ve discovered that I’m not the only one who was wrong about a medical decision. I’ve learned that there are many ways women can inadvertently undermine themselves when it comes to their health.
Some, like me, simply play too passive a role with their doctors, perhaps because of a cultivated reluctance to challenge authority. Others blame themselves for getting sick in the first place. One woman said she was convinced she contracted lupus as a reward for being petty as a child. Some women wait too long to get to the doctor, letting other responsibilities — kids, work, sick parents — take precedence.
A woman I met delayed her mammogram because she had no one to take care of her son. A few months later, she was finally able to reschedule, and now she has stage three breast cancer and faces a long and difficult recovery.
May was Women’s Health Month, but there’s never a bad time to explore how women can break down the personal barriers that keep them from seeking the best health care possible. Nor is there a bad time to discuss another important element of women’s health issues: the gender biases that still persist in the medical community.
These gendered attitudes do not develop in a vacuum. There is a history steeped in centuries of women’s bodies being mocked, minimized, denigrated or even ignored.
In ancient Greece, many believed that gynecological disorders made women’s bodies inherently pathological. Aristotle viewed women as “mutilated men,” as Caroline Criado Perez explains in her 2021 book “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.”
The diagnosis of “hysteria” in the Victorian era amounted to a rejection of many ailments. In “Complaints & Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness,” authors Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English explain that during this time, men subjected their wives to ovariectomies (removal of the ovaries) to “tame their unruly behavior.” After the operation, they were returned to their husbands, “docile, “orderly” and “industrious”.
More than three centuries later, in 1968, Dr. Robert Wilson, a prominent commentator on menopause, wrote in “Feminine Forever,” “one must face the unpleasant truth that all postmenopausal women are castrated… No woman can be sure to escape the horror of this living decay.
And while the details today are more subtle than they were in the past, the tradition of disdain for women has not entirely died out.
“There is a history steeped in centuries of women’s bodies being mocked, minimized, decried or even ignored.”
Years ago I had a biopsy for a lump on my back. Once done, I asked the doctor what my next step would be if the biopsy turned out to be malignant.
As he turned to walk through the door without answering, he said, “Why don’t you let us drive!”
But when my husband stepped in and asked the same question, the doctor explained that I had to come back so they were sure I had “got it all figured out.”
At 18, one of my daughters was diagnosed with TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder), a jaw disorder in which chewing becomes quite painful. At the time, the recommended treatment was to remove the disc from the jawbone and replace it with a Teflon disc.
But the treatment carried a major risk: it was possible that during the surgery one or more of the facial nerves would be nicked, which can lead to partial paralysis of the face. Since the ramifications were so terrifying, we decided to find out if there were any other options.
It turned out that there were two camps in the TMJ community. One was 100% for surgery, the other 100% against. There didn’t seem to be a middle ground.
A doctor advocating for surgery told me, “If you won’t allow your daughter to have surgery, I strongly suggest you go for psychological therapy. You really need to examine your unconscious hostility towards your daughter.
Another non-surgical camp expert told me, “If it was my daughter, I’d wait and see. Mothers who rush their children into surgery need to examine their motives. Our children don’t need to be perfect.
Although my husband was present at both appointments, these comments were directed at me.
She was not operated. Fortunately, it was the right choice. The Teflon implant apparently caused a severe reaction associated with bone destruction, pain and, in some cases, severe facial disfigurement. It has since been taken off the market.
Even when men and women have the same symptoms and conditions, they are often diagnosed and treated differently. A 2018 review of dozens of studies shows that when it comes to pain, for example, women are rated as “emotional”, while men are “brave”.
Fortunately, this unfortunate situation of bias and dismissal may finally be starting to change.
Comedian Amy Schumer has spoken openly about her endometriosis (a painful condition where tissue that normally lines the uterus grows outside) and trichotillomania (a hair-pulling disorder). Actress Rita Wilson has written extensively about her breast cancer.
Singer Demi Lovato is open about her bipolar disorder, bulimia and drug addiction that led to her stroke and heart attacks. Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles has brought global attention to her mental health struggles.
De-stigmatization is the first step on the road to transparency and health.
With the bravery of these women as my inspiration, as well as my own research and life experiences, I have learned to have the courage to question my doctors to be sure I fully understand what they are saying. This way we can work together more effectively.
I know the importance of getting a second opinion, and like in the case of my daughter and her ATM, maybe even a third. It takes courage and strength to question decisions that affect my health.
Never again will I say to myself, “Why did I accept this? Because I will know why.
Susan Salenger is the author and researcher of “The Shelving, How Women Manage and Mismanage Their Health.” The book examines the many ways some women manage and sometimes mismanage their health care. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Susan attended UCLA to study English. After graduation, she worked alongside her husband Fred for 25 years in their production company, Salenger Films, which produced training and corporate development films distributed worldwide. Today, at 79, Susan lives in Northern California to be close to her amazing family which includes her two daughters, four grandchildren, a cat named Max and a dog named JD (Salenger). When she’s not talking about her book or spending time with her family and friends, you’ll find that Susan is working out to stay in shape. To learn more about Susan, visit her website or find her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Do you have a compelling personal story that you would like to see published on HuffPost? Find out what we’re looking for here and send us a pitch.
The Huffington Gt