March is a hard month for me. It’s colon cancer awareness month, and a constant reminder of the disease that almost killed my mother. This October marks seven years since my Mom was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer that spread to the liver and later the lung. I was 14, she was 39. It was never supposed to happen.
But this is a blog on women’s health and gender-based violence, not colon cancer. What could this experience possibly have to do with that?
The answer lies in the fact that my Mom had been complaining of severe constipation for over three years and her primary care physician didn’t think to order a colonoscopy until she passed a blood clot. By then the cancer was the size of a plumb and had spread to multiple lymph nodes. It had been growing for almost a decade. The doctor had done everything he was trained to do, prescribing medication, suggesting diet changes, encouraging exercise. You aren’t supposed to get colon cancer until at least your 50’s, so it made sense that he wouldn’t have ever considered the possibility. Yet, a part of me will always wonder if things could have been different. If, after the 5th time she came in with the same complaint, maybe he could have ordered the test just to be sure. Maybe, we could have avoided the surgeries and the chemotherapy if he would have considered her symptoms more critically.
I’m the leader of the Empower lab’s chronic pelvic pain team, a team that was inspired by the disparities in trauma-sensitive research for chronic pelvic pain. To me, however, this project has taken on even more importance as I begin to understand how gender plays a role in medicine and research. Pain, specifically for women, is systematically devalued in our medical system. Women wait longer for pain medication, receive less pain medication, and are subject to more questioning and scrutiny than men with the same pain conditions (Source). There have been countless articles in the media from the Atlantic to the New York Times describing how the U.S medical system ignores and devalues women’s pain symptoms. As the lab is uncovering, this disparity seeps into the type of research funded and conducted, as well as into the theoretical understandings that scientists have about pain.
Researchers are now finding that my Mom may be a survivor of a special type of colon cancer that has an earlier onset. More and more people are being diagnosed with colon cancer before the age of 50. Unfortunately for my Mom, the research hadn’t caught up enough to warn her doctor, and consequently her pain and symptoms were dismissed for years.
For me, my work studying pain in the Empower Lab is a kind of advocacy that is linked to my Mom. Our work means believing women, even if the science hasn’t proved them right yet. This work means taking pain seriously, regardless of physical presentation, gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, income, or language. Through my work in the lab, I have been able to begin to chip away at the inequalities that women face when trying to get their pain treated.