- Cancer is unusual in your 20s and 30s, and doctors can dismiss symptoms as more common ailments.
- Young women can also be vulnerable to gaslighting, and made to believe symptoms are in their heads.
- Four young women with cancer shared how doctors first told them they were “too young” for cancer.
About 5% of all cancers are diagnosed in people in their 20s and 30s, according to the American Cancer Society.
But doctors may be more likely to dismiss these patients, chalking up ubiquitous symptoms like stomach pain to more common ailments like irritable bowel syndrome, Insider previously reported.
Young women can be especially prone to medical gaslighting, experts say, or when doctors dismiss symptoms as all in the patient’s head, leading to missed or delayed diagnoses and inappropriate treatments.
Here are the stories of three 20- and 30-somethings who said their cancer symptoms weren’t taken seriously due to their age.
A 28-year-old with severe pain and diarrhea said she was denied a colonoscopy
Over the course of about a year, Ashley Teague lost about 25 pounds for no clear reason. She had also suffered a severe and unexplained side pain while working, had diarrhea up to seven times a day, and developed bloody stool.
But clinicians dismissed her symptoms as irritable bowel syndrome, telling the 28-year-old photographer and mom in Indianapolis that she “looked healthy” and was “too young” for a colonoscopy.
It wasn’t until Teague told clinicians she had a family history of colon cancer that she was scheduled for a colonoscopy. She learned she had colorectal cancer, and underwent surgery to remove more than four and a half feet of her five-foot colon.
Colon cancer is on the rise in young people, but they’re still sometimes dismissed, Dr. David Greenwald, a professor of medicine and gastroenterology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, previously told Insider.
“It is very clear that signs and symptoms that might indicate colorectal cancer in those under 50, and particularly rectal bleeding, should be evaluated by a healthcare professional promptly and not dismissed as ‘only hemorrhoids’ or ‘normal,'” he said.
A 29-year-old’s racing heart was dismissed as anxiety
Katie Coleman knew something was wrong: She had high blood pressure and a racing heart, despite being 29 years old with no previous health issues.
But she said eight doctors dismissed her complaints as anxiety, and put her on anti-anxiety medication. “Two doctors told me I was too young for cancer when I asked. It made me feel like a hypochondriac,” Coleman, a software developer in Austin, Texas, told Today.com.
Coleman had even tried to assuage her symptoms by losing 50 pounds by walking daily and eating well, but that only made the mass on her abdomen more visible. Finally, Coleman underwent an ultrasound and CT scan, and learned she had an almost 5-inch mass on her kidney and several tumors in her liver, Insider reported.
“I almost felt a sense of relief because for once, I had somebody sitting across from me who believed me and there was a reason for why I had been feeling terrible,” she told Today.
Coleman underwent various treatments, including surgery, and was continuing to have her liver monitored when she shared her story in May.
A 23-year-old said her cancer symptom was brushed off as “just a cough”
When Chloe Girardier’s cough wouldn’t go away, she sought a doctor’s appointment — and was denied.
“They kept telling me I wasn’t eligible for an urgent appointment because it was just a cough,” Girardier, then a 23-year-old home health worker in the UK said, according to The Sun.
Eventually, Girardier said, she was given antibiotics, inhalers, and acid reflux tablets, but her symptoms didn’t change. Girardier started losing weight, too.
After five months and seven doctors appointments, Girardier said she insisted on a chest X-ray. The scan revealed a 4.25-inch mass in her chest that turned out to be Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She was set to undergo chemotherapy last December.
“I can’t believe it wasn’t looked into further and if I hadn’t pushed for the chest X-ray, I may still not have a diagnosis,” she said. “It’s been dragged on so long because of my age.”