“Wear only white underwear”. This advice is suited for a Victorian etiquette manual, not a doctor’s office. Nonetheless, three physicians offered the same dismissive words over a year long search for relief. According to medical professionals, the root of my chronic pain was my underwear color choice. As my primary care doctor repeated: “some people get colds, some people get chronic yeast infections”.
Three out of four women get a yeast infection in their lifetime. I got one every two weeks.
“Is this affecting your life?” The first time I was posed this question, I naively thought the physician cared. I recounted the unbearable pain and emotional toll the recurrent infections were causing. I explained the research I had done, the remedies I had tried, how nothing worked, how sex was beyond painful, and how I was left burning, stinging, and distracted from everything besides my body. Yet, after being asked this question over countless visits, I knew that what I said did not matter. In response, nurses, doctors, and gynecologists only offered a laundry list of dismissive prescriptions; “Stop taking baths”, “Stop shaving”, “Stop eating meat”, “Stop eating citrus fruit”, “Take some time off school”, “Refrain from sex, try erotic massage instead”. Looking back now, these comments seem almost comical, but in the moment, this advice was the only guidance I was given to navigate my overwhelming suffering.
While research indicates that women are more likely to seek medical treatment than men, studies suggest that doctors make more diagnostic errors and turn to less aggressive treatments for women when compared to men. Preconceived notions about femininity also come into play, as literature suggests, clinicians may dismiss women’s pain due to assumptions that women are excessively anxious or overly emotional. Further, reports speak to the fact that such healthcare disparities are exacerbated for women of color. As a result, women’s complaints are more prone to being minimized by doctors.
For most women, a trip to the pharmacy and one pill of Canesten is a magic bullet of relief. I fit into the small percentage of women who manufacturers write clauses on medication boxes for, like: “Consult doctor if: there is no improvement in 3 days or if symptoms have not disappeared within 7 days, or symptoms return within two months”. I was handed Rx sheet, after Rx sheet, first for one dose of Fluconazole, then one every three days, then one for fourteen days straight, and then one a month for the rest of my life.
Despite many doctors looking at me, I had not been seen. My body became a guinea pig, physicians experimented with different doses, only for me to return in the following two weeks and repeat the cycle. Frustration became a part of daily life, frustration with the medical system, and with my body’s inability to get better. I wanted an answer, I wanted a cure.
The paper sheet sticks to my skin, I feel cold sweat under my arms, my gaze is fixed on the ceiling where a cartoon nurse encourages me to relax. It’s test day. I meet with a doctor I am not familiar with. The consultation begins, she asks me about my number of past sexual partners. I respond, she states it’s high, taken aback, I reply that it’s really not. Ten seconds into the exam, I experience the sharpest pain I have felt to date. Tears well in my eyes as I shriek for the doctor to stop, after five more seconds of excruciating pain, she complies. I sit up, pale with shock. “What happened?” I asked in a shaky voice. “Your cervix is cut” she says. “Because you just cut it,” I mutter.
A week later, I meet with a different doctor to receive my test results. I’m told that I tested positive for yeast. I’m then told that all people with vaginas test positive for yeast. Great. The doctor offers me more testing. I want answers, but I do not want to undergo the same trauma I suffered in the last appointment. This physician offers me the option of a self-swab. I feel relieved and angry all at once. Relieved that I have the agency to perform the test within my own control, angry that I had to undergo extensive pain for absolutely nothing. I leave after hearing the typical laundry list of useless information, Rx sheet in hand. A week beyond when I should have heard results, I phone the clinic for information. The results: my test kit was lost.
In the following months, I am told I could have diabetes, I am told I could have HIV. Overwhelmed by these possibilities, I do what privileged Canadians are able to: I leave the public sector and go private. Shaking with anxiety, both about the blood test I am about to undergo, and the possibility of the results, I am greeted with the kindest nurse I could have imagined. For the first time in too long, I feel a medical professional takes an interest in my well-being. She addresses my nerves, explains the procedure, and assures me that everything will be okay. The very next morning, a gift of the private sector, I receive my negative test results, awash with relief.
A year later, and no closer to answers, I ask for a referral. Both my gynecologist and primary care physician refer the same specialist. Hope begins to build as I feel closer to ending this nightmare. Excited to hear positive stories of recovery, I begin to do some research about this physician. I open Google and sigh— my search suggestions below are filled with anxious questions I had previously typed looking for answers. I type his name into the search bar. As I begin to read, my hope vanishes, and my chest tightens. Among the mixed reviews, women disclose the sexual violence they had suffered at the hands of this doctor. As I scroll, I see further advice for women to avoid appointments, especially at night. In this moment, I was being asked to choose what was most important: a cure for my chronic infections, or the risk of sexual violence. This doctor was chosen by physicians who had looked me in the eye as I recounted my medical history and emotional turmoil. They had chosen this man for me to entrust with my body. In this very moment, I gave up. The medical system had failed me, both as a patient, and as a woman.
Whenever an infection reoccurs, I am brought back to the moments of crying in doctors’ offices, shaking during pelvic exams, and praying for my body to just be normal. While this burden remains heavy, it is with the support and care of those closest to me that I work towards recovery. Slight breakthroughs for my suffering have not been rooted in the color of my underwear, but in my sister suggesting a calcium deficiency, a concoction of probiotic self-medication, and educated guesses.
This story is not unique. It fits within a larger narrative of women’s health being dismissed. Once I began sharing my experiences, I heard from countless women with similar hardships. Stories from women whose physical ailments were classified as all in their heads, whose lives were threatened when their race and gender led doctors to dismiss the seriousness of their pain. Even my mother’s doctor once stated “women are meant to suffer”. Medical professionals are entrusted with our most personal and sensitive matters. We bare ourselves to them exhausted, embarrassed, and desperate for solutions. Yet, too many women have memories of their pain being ignored or increased within doctor’s offices. Illness is already overwhelming, tiring, and isolating enough. It is imperative that every patient is presented with comprehensive and compassionate care. It is crucial that individuals navigating their health know they are not alone.
It is true– some people get chronic yeast infections, but too many are neglected in the healthcare system.
* An earlier version of this article was published in The McGill Daily