Something was stabbing Abby Norman from the inside.
As she took what she would later call the worst shower of her life, the college sophomore experienced a wave of excruciating abdominal pain.
It would take years for doctors to take that pain seriously. Even as her body withered, her hair turned gray and she dropped out of college because of her precarious health, Norman’s providers insisted she was imagining things.
Eventually she set out on her own investigation of her symptoms, scouring through medical literature for answers.
“Ask Me About My Uterus,” subtitled “A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain” and published by Nation Books this month, reveals Norman’s struggle for a diagnosis — endometriosis — and a meditation on how health-care providers can ignore women’s pain.
Endometriosis, in which the uterine lining grows outside the uterus, is thought to affect more than 11 percent of American women between ages 15 and 44. Yet it’s underdiagnosed and little understood.
Women with endometriosis aren’t the only ones whose pain and other physical symptoms are underestimated by doctors. Women report more chronic pain than men, and when they report acute pain, women are more likely to be prescribed sedatives than pain medications.
Even when they do receive diagnoses, women report being dismissed as overly emotional when they insist on appropriate treatment. For years, scholars and patients have cried bias, but physical pain is often paired with a fight to be taken seriously by medical providers.
Norman, now a science writer, articulates her own struggles with clarity and calmness. She weaves in historical context about the diagnosis, treatment and perception of women in medicine, from the myth of “hysteria” to cultural perceptions about women’s pain tolerance and propensity for “female troubles.”
In a way, “Ask Me About My Uterus” is an extension of Norman’s terrible shower — a torrent of disconcerting information about the continued struggle to understand and value women’s bodies. Norman hopes to use that information to destroy misconceptions and pave the road for change. “It is my sincerest hope,” she writes, “that some of what is in this book will no longer be applicable by the time it’s in your hands.”
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