Doctors told this woman she was “fat,” but she actually had cancer

It goes without saying that body-shaming is not cool. But it’s particularly problematic and possibly life-threatening when you’re being body-shamed by your own doctor. That’s what happened to 28-year-old Rebecca Hiles, who was told by her doctor that being “fat” was the source of her medical issues. But as you probably guessed, weight wasn’t the problem. 

As reported by Cosmopolitan, Hiles suffered from “unexplained coughing fits” for years that began when she was 17 years old. At 23, her coughs got so bad that she would vomit and have trouble controlling her bladder. But when her blood tests kept coming back normal, doctors would write her symptoms off and say “it’s clearly weight-related.” 

Hiles had a gut feeling that her weight wasn’t the problem, though, so she switched to a new primary care physician who referred her to a pulmonologist. The new doc wanted to run some tests on her lungs to see what the problem really was. But before she even got a chance to make the appointment, she was hospitalized for a bloody coughing fit.

There, doctors took her concerns a lot more seriously, did a powerful CT scan, as opposed to a regular X-ray, and actually found a tumor in her bronchial tube. In short, she had to get surgery to remove her entire, cancerous left lung, which had become a “black, rotting piece of dead tissue.” 

As Hiles wrote in a 2015 blog post, 

"When my surgeon told me a diagnosis five years prior could’ve saved my lung, I remember a feeling of complete and utter rage. Because I remembered the five years I spent looking for some kind of reason why I was always coughing, always sick. Most of all, I remembered being consistently told that the reason I was sick was because I was fat."

As horrible as her story is, she’s not the only one who’s experienced this medical shaming. In fact, a 2003 study on primary care physicians’ attitudes on obesity and its treatment found that over 50% of physicians view obese patients as “awkward, unattractive, ugly, and noncompliant.” Three out of four also viewed losing weight as an “acceptable treatment outcome.”  

While losing some weight can help with managing conditions like diabetes, it’s pretty irresponsible to say it’s the cure for every single medical condition in existence. That’s far from being true. Being judged too quickly by their doctors isn’t something that only happens to overweight women, either. Earlier this year, Serena Williams called out the American health care system for its racism against black women.

“Doctors aren’t listening to us, just to be frank,” Williams said in an interview with the BBC.  “We’re dying, three times more likely. And knowing that going in, some doctors not caring as much for us, it’s heartbreaking.”

At the end of the day, doctors are human, too. They make mistakes and have their own set of prejudices. It shouldn’t be happening since their decisions affect other people’s lives, but unfortunately it does. Yes, you should be able to trust your doctor’s advice. But if you really feel that something is off, don’t be afraid to say something and maybe even get a second or third opinion. Speak up. Everyone has the right to get the proper health care they need.

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