Women’s health has been stigmatised since the dawn of his-story. And somewhere along the way her-story became devalued.
The learned men of Ancient Greece — Aristotle, Plato and even Hippocrates, the father of medicine — concluded that all female illnesses were caused by the womb. If a woman had health issues in another part of her body, it was because her womb had wandered out of place.
The only cure was to bandage her in an attempt to squeeze the womb back to where it belonged. Because the womb made women weak, emotional and hard to deal with, Aristotle concluded females could never be involved in politics or leadership roles.
For centuries the most popular diagnosis for complaining women was ‘hysteria’, which comes from the Greek word for uterus.
How many women throughout history have had their health issues ignored, disbelieved and dismissed because their symptoms were different to men’s, or because their symptoms weren’t thought as worthy of medical investigation and intervention? The sexism of the past that defined the ‘hysterical woman’ still infiltrates the modern medical profession.
The stigma on women’s health
Today, the female disease, endometriosis, is as common as asthma. Yet research into this condition receives far less funding. In 2017 just over $1 was spent per patient on endometriosis research in Australia. Due to lack of clinical studies, endometriosis currently has no known cause or cure.
In January 2017 I was in ER, the first of five hospital visits that year. I could hardly walk, the pain in my abdomen caused tears to prickle my eyes and screams to leap from my mouth, uncontrolled. I kept rushing to the bathroom to throw up. There was only one other person in the waiting room: a man with an ear infection. He was before me on the waiting list, yet he could see I was in a bad way, so kindly offered me his place.
Unfortunately, the doctor on call didn’t think there was much wrong with me. I thought it best to offload my medical history. Ten years previously I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, which was triggered by an onslaught of viral and bacterial infections. This left me bedridden for three years. It was during this time, with a weakened immune system, that I began experiencing endometriosis symptoms.
At this point I didn’t know about the millennia of ‘hysteria’ that preceded my ER examination. But a hysterical hypochondriac is how that doctor made me feel. She pressed down on my tummy, ignored my groans of pain, and told me everything was fine. I should go home and try to get outside so I wouldn’t feel depressed. I lay on the hospital bed feeling defeated by her analysis. The symptoms I’d described were related to pelvic pain, not depression.
What that doctor didn’t realise was that beneath her hands, deep in my pelvis, Stage 4 endometriosis was growing — this is the worst category of this disease where cells similar to the lining of the uterus grow outside the womb on other organs. Months later I had two surgeries that revealed deep infiltrating lesions were causing my excruciating pain.
For over ten years I had brought my symptoms to doctors. I had often hoped for a referral to a specialist, only to be told seeing a psychologist was my best option for pain management. My mum was often present during these appointments. She would tell the doctor she had endometriosis when she was my age and, because it went untreated for so long, she contracted septicaemia (blood poisoning). Still, nobody concluded I could have a similar problem.
The pain eventually became so bad, it was perpetual. I couldn’t escape it, painkillers did nothing. It was like a sword pierced through me everyday, and these sharp spasms would last for hours on end and through the night. It was an effort to walk because my legs were numb, hard to eat things that didn’t make my stomach turn, difficult holding conversations, my muscles ached and my head thumped. I was exhausted.
I finally found a compassionate GP, who referred me to an excellent specialist, who did something no one had ever done before: she listened to my story and told me she could help. An internal examination, ultrasound and MRI scan all pointed to endometrial adhesions. I was booked in for surgery, officially diagnosed and prescribed treatments to help manage a disease I had lived with in silence for over a decade.
My story is not unique. One in ten women suffer from endometriosis and on average it takes seven to ten years to receive a clinical diagnosis. For too long this has been her-story.
A long-suffering woman determined for a cure
In first century Judea, women were ceremonially unclean while they were bleeding. An unclean person was excluded from religious and cultural life. Jesus of Nazareth let a woman who had bled for twelve years from a disease (that could have been endometriosis) reach out to touch him. According to Jewish law this meant he too became unclean.
Everyone who witnessed this interaction would have thought it inappropriate that Jesus the Healer associate with a bleeding woman. Yet Jesus didn’t dismiss her determination for a cure — she had spent all her money on doctors, who had only made her condition worse.
In desperation she grabbed Jesus’ robe, believing God would heal her. Jesus felt her tug his clothes and called her out of hiding. She had suffered in silence for twelve years, but now he made her healing testimony known publicly. In doing so he was breaking the stigma on women’s health. He didn’t call her hysterical, he didn’t ignore her pain, he didn’t disbelieve her symptoms, and he didn’t call her unclean. Instead, he valued her story by saying, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace. Your suffering is over” (Mark chapter 5, verse 34).
Amy is a Press Services International Columnist from Adelaide. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Screen & Media, and now works as a freelance photographer, videographer and writer. She was runner-up in the 2018 Basil Sellars Award. Her previous articles can be viewed here: http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/amy-manners.html