Debra's doctor told her she was 'pregnant and hormonal'. She actually had a brain tumour.

When Annette was 15, doctors told her that painful periods were just part of becoming a woman. She accepted what he said, enduring the pain for the next four years. At 19, a female doctor diagnosed her with endometriosis

In her 20s, she visited her male GP about a chronic ear infection. She took antibiotics for more than four months, different ones prescribed when the first wouldn’t work. Then there was the discharge, so she visited another GP, a female, who referred her to a specialist. The neglect had rotted her mastoid - a part of the temporal bone- and she had to have part of it removed. The specialist said she was lucky her skull hadn’t collapsed. 

Watch: Closing The Gap - Addressing Gender Inequities In Healthcare. Post continues after the video. 

Video via youtube/@DemystifyingMedicineMcMaster

After her first baby, she struggled to shift the pregnancy weight. Three GPs told her that was normal after having a baby. Two told her she had postnatal depression, and another suggested she join the gym. She was told to stop breastfeeding and take antidepressants. But she knew she wasn’t depressed. A year later, she saw new GP, a female, who suggested the possibility of a thyroid problem. 


"I was diagnosed with postpartum hypothyroidism. And that is another story of mistreatment and lack of interest from the three endocrinologists I've seen. All men, whose response to my pain and stress was 'you'll just have to put up with it.'

"Until I saw a new doctor—female—who's been treating me for two years and for the first time in 22 years, my thyroid is functioning normally."

A day after dining in an Ethiopian restaurant, Zoe began to feel weak. 

"It just got worse and worse. I started throwing up violently and had terrible diarrhea. Then I got weaker and weaker. After a while my muscles started feeling like I was getting electric shocks through them. I was dripping sweat."

She passed out several times en route back to Sydney, vomiting, her stomach severely swollen. The following day she was forced to abruptly leave an academic lecture she was giving because of her extreme symptoms. Staff told her she was being dramatic. 

She visited a local GP who thought she was faking her symptoms to get a doctor’s certificate. When she told him what had happened, he said if it were true, she’d be dead. 

"I felt pretty damn close to being dead, but after no one taking me seriously I just sort of gave up and had no fight in me left."

After a few weeks, she started feeling better. A couple of months later, while at her usual female doctor for other reasons, she told her what had happened. 


"It was too late to do any deeper investigations like colonoscopies for a diagnosis, but she warned me that severe gastrointestinal illnesses can often come back or have lingering effects. She told me there was a big chance that next time I got ill I might spiral, so I needed to go to ER if I started to feel nauseous and tell them I was a few months out from a serious GI episode."

Before long, that’s exactly what happened. Her abdomen became so sore, she couldn’t walk. She went in and out of consciousness, and was taken to emergency. A ruptured ectopic pregnancy was suspected. When Zoe explained her history, the doctor was horrified. She requested bloods, and was furious when she discovered none were ever taken. She called in another doctor, with both concluding the likely initial cause was cholera.

"Because it was too late to check, we will never really know and my diagnosis was 'cholera-like illness'.

"The whole incident made me feel very abandoned and unheard. I was treated like a liar or an attention-seeker. It’s hard to trust after that."

Anette and Zoe are far from alone. Debra had a brain tumour dismissed by a doctor who told her she was “pregnant and hormonal”. Janet was told to “just deal” with chronic wrist pain, that’s now being treated with a new therapy, thanks to a doctor that was prepared to listen. Saige was told her symptoms were all in her head, drawing an elaborate image showing she must be hypersensitive to food passing through her system. “They missed fibro that had calcified and was pulling on my uterus, the missed endo, I had to go through expensive IVF to conceive thanks to all of this.”


The dismissing of women’s pain is nothing new. 

"The pain gap theory is based upon a misconception that can be traced back hundreds of years," says psychotherapist, Julie Sweet. 

"It’s a view that the pain women suffer is because of psychological reasons - for example, a construct of their mind. 

"This, in turn, has led to characterisations of women as highly sensitive, anxious, or exhibiting some form of mental or emotional frailty."

The gender pain gap.

"Even though people vary in their experience and response to pain, sex and gender differences provide a key source of variation and are widely observed. Women are generally experiencing more pain across the lifespan compared to men," says General Practitioner Dr Amy Carmichael. 

In 2023, Nurofen launched the first Gender Pain Gap Index. The survey of more than 5000 UK adults across demographically diverse backgrounds, revealed that more women than men felt their pain had been ignored or dismissed by healthcare professionals. 

In 2024, Australia is catching up. Earlier this year, Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan announced an Inquiry into Women’s Pain, following a landmark survey that revealed one in three women have experienced insensitive and disrespectful practitioners who left them feeling dismissed and unheard. 

Other findings from the survey included:

  • Four in 10 Victorian women live with chronic pain

  • Around half of participants reported that period-related conditions impacted their health and wellbeing

  • Around half said pregnancy and birth complications continued to impact their health

  • Around 30 per cent said they were affected by the symptoms of perimenopause or menopause

  • 30 per cent said conditions such as endometriosis, menopause and chronic pain led to poor mental health

  • One in three have health conditions that affect their ability to work and keep a job

  • 20 per cent said they missed out on social connections because of their health

One participant reported being prescribed antidepressants when she had acute pelvic pain  – but was later diagnosed with advanced endometriosis.


Why does it happen?

According to Dr Carmichael, several factors contribute to the gender pain gap, including a tendency for women’s pain to be attributed to emotional factors rather than physiological causes.

"Societal norms and stereotypes often influence perceptions of pain. Studies also suggest that women are more likely to be prescribed psychotropic medications for pain, while men may receive more aggressive and targeted interventions.

"A 2018 review of 77 pain studies from around the world found that healthcare professionals were more likely to view men who were in pain as stoic, and to perceive women in pain as hysterical, emotional, complaining and even fabricating their pain."

The impact of the gender pain gap on women is vast, and extends beyond the physical. According to Dr Carmichael, possible repercussions may include:

Delayed diagnosis and treatment.

"Dismissing women's pain may lead to delays in diagnosis and appropriate medical intervention. Conditions that could have been managed effectively if addressed promptly may worsen over time."

Physical consequences.

"Ignoring or downplaying women's pain may result in unmanaged physical symptoms and complications. Chronic conditions, reproductive health issues, and other medical concerns may go untreated, leading to a decline in overall physical health."

Mental health impact.

"Persistent dismissal of pain can contribute to mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Feeling invalidated and unheard in their experiences may lead to a sense of helplessness and frustration."


The cumulative impact of physical suffering and emotional distress can significantly compromise a woman's overall quality of life, including her personal and professional life. 

A long way to go.

"The fact that there is a personal story shared by a woman in Victoria, that she was prescribed antidepressants for acute pelvic pain that was stopping her sleeping and working - which was later diagnosed as advanced endometriosis, gives a clear view that many health professionals still discriminate women when it comes to pain," says Dr Carmichael. 

Psychologist Pheobe Rogers agrees, and says many women feel the onus is on their to manage their own pain, rather than feeling their practitioner is a collaborator in their health. 

"They do feel rushed, dismissed, not taken seriously, not believed, and left confused about where to go next, in the health system. 

"More often than not I hear stories where there is a lack of sensitivity and a clear solution. 

"Women often suffer in silence with these conditions as they are invisible to the eye- and women keep showing up in life courageously despite their pain."

Feature image: Getty.

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