How to Get Your Doctor to Take You Seriously
Advice from patients, physicians, and advocates on making sure your concerns are heard
Around 12 years ago, at age 19, Brittany Bella Graham began experiencing severe lower-back pain and a constant throbbing ache in her right side. “It felt like a swift kick,” she recalls, “almost like someone was hitting me in the ribs.” At first, the pain happened only when she stood for a long time, but then it became more frequent. Soon, she felt severe pain whenever she stood or sat — in other words, constantly.
Graham, now an advertising consultant based in Los Angeles, was understandably worried. But, she says, her doctor was less so, declaring the pain the result of an external injury — a pulled muscle, perhaps. Graham was prescribed muscle relaxers, which gave her an ulcer and did nothing to alleviate the pain. It was only once Graham threatened to change providers, she says, that her doctor relented and ordered an MRI, which revealed a cancerous mass on her pancreas.
Graham’s experience, dramatic though it may be, follows a story arc that, for many, is frustratingly familiar. When I began asking around for people who had experienced something like this, the response was immediate and overwhelming. For Tess Townsend, a freelance journalist in Sacramento, the issue was a seemingly simple case of chronic acid reflux, but she says her doctor insisted she was merely asthmatic and that her symptoms were imagined. When Jacksonville-based travel writer Angie Orth went to the ER with a horrible pain in her side, she says the doctor told her it was “just [her] period.” Only after Orth insisted on a CT scan did they discover a bursting cyst.
This is just a sampling of the stories that came flooding in. Writer and patient advocate Abby Norman, author of Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain, also experienced a dramatic response when her book came out last year: “I was inundated with emails and messages…[and] I realized just how far-reaching and deeply embedded the issue is,” she says.
“Obviously, threatening to change providers worked, because an MRI was ordered that same day.”