Lucy Mangan

Lucy Mangan on the gender pain gap

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Lucy Mangan
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“Your pain is real. Don’t let it be ignored”. 

In the past week I’ve had a friend collapse in tears of relief as she finally received a diagnosis and treatment plan for the crippling (literally: she spends at least two days a month in bed unable to walk) pain and blood loss she experiences with every period. Another was finally told after eight months of painful sex that it wasn’t actually “all in her mind”, she didn’t just “need to relax” but had actually been stitched up incorrectly after childbirth. 

And another discovered that her various symptoms weren’t caused by thyroid problems but early menopause – as she’d been suggesting ever since the thyroid medication she was given had made no difference whatsoever. And yet another had to go privately to get medication for polycystic ovary syndrome that the NHS no longer provides.

But these anecdotes about the inadequacies of the medical profession in dealing with women’s health issues aren’t data. So, let’s look at some data. There’s the recent global survey on breast implants which discovered links between the popular textured type and a rare form of cancer, the use of non-clinical grade material by leading manufacturers, and 1,200 serious incidents reported in the UK alone since 2015. There are the class actions in Australia, the UK and the US by women who have suffered complications from vaginal mesh insertions and whose individual pleas for help were too often ignored. 

Or how about the admission from Capita last month that they had failed to send out more than 40,000 invitations or reminder letters to women due cervical smear tests, and 4,000 more results letters of previous smears? Or the fact that they tried to dismiss the resultant criticism by arguing that only a few of those 4,000 would have needed further examination? 

There are studies that show women are more likely to have their pain dismissed, to be given less aggressive treatment than men and to be prescribed painkillers at weaker doses and less often than men. Returning to anecdotes for a moment, I would also suggest – after years of watching my husband complain about pain levels that suggest an hour in block heels, never mind an hour in labour – that women underreport their suffering in the first place, and so their pain is being doubly mismanaged.

It’s #notalldoctors, of course. But it is the case that the medical profession has been historically dominated by men and still conforms largely to the shape in which men built it (including – fun fact! – calculating the standard dose for many drugs on what is needed for an adult male body only). So, just as when you are determining what you should be paid at work, you need to factor this intangible bias into your own calculations. Report your pain as you think a man would. See your right to health and to bodily integrity as naturally as a man and his doctor would see his.

We’re learning to stand up for ourselves in the workplace and in the home. Now we must take that confidence into the doctor’s surgery too. Stand up for yourself. You shouldn’t have to, of course, but here we are, and there you go, so DO. If something’s wrong by your standards – it’s wrong. Lumps need examining. Sex shouldn’t hurt. Periods shouldn’t cripple. Smears shouldn’t hurt. If they do, find a doctor who helps instead of hinders. Asserting yourself might feel uncomfortable but in this case only, remember – no pain, no gain.

Images: Unsplash