Doctors told a 29-year-old she had anxiety and that she was 'too young for cancer.' She had stage 4 kidney cancer.

·4-min read
Doctors told a 29-year-old she had anxiety and that she was 'too young for cancer.' She had stage 4 kidney cancer.
Woman having lower back pain.
Woman having lower back pain.sutteerug / Getty Images
  • Katie Coleman saw eight doctors for a racing heart and high blood pressure. They called it anxiety.

  • After losing weight, she noticed a mass in her abdomen. Tests revealed stage 4 kidney cancer.

  • Young women are speaking up about the life-threatening consequences of not being taken seriously.

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 over the course of a year and a half, doctor after doctor — eight in total — told her she had anxiety, and continued to put her on anti-anxiety meds. "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 tried to solve the problem herself by losing 50 pounds by walking daily and eating well. That's when she a mass on her abdomen became prevalent. "The best way that I can describe it is it felt like I had six-pack abs on that side, but I don't have a six-pack in any way, shape, or form," Coleman said.

After a nurse at an urgent care clinic encouraged her to go the ER, Coleman underwent an ultrasound and CT scan in December 2020. The tests revealed an almost 5-inch mass on her kidney and several tumors in her liver, she told Today.

She was diagnosed with a rare type of renal cell carcinoma, which had spread to her liver, deeming it stage 4.

"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 said.

After a couple months of treatment that Coleman doesn't specify, she underwent surgery six months after the diagnosis. The procedure is typically reserved for earlier-stage cancers. Doctors took out her right kidney and pieces of her liver. They also burned off some liver tumors, she said.

Now, nearly a year after the first procedure, Coleman's liver is being monitored. She doesn't know her prognosis given the rarity of the disease.

"Today, I'm feeling great," she said. "I actually feel the best I've felt in my entire life, which is really weird to say with stage 4 cancer. I'm very appreciative for however long a period of time I get to feel this way."

Women are particularly at risk of medical gaslighting

Research shows women are among the most vulnerable to what is often called medical gaslighting, or when medical professionals dismiss a person's symptoms, deny tests or treatments, and ultimately misdiagnose them.

"They're not being believed, and that's causing significant delays in care, misdiagnosis, late diagnosis, ineffective treatment, and ineffective triaging," Dr. Garima Sharma, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins, previously told Insider. "Women are paying a very heavy price."

While Coleman said she doesn't blame the doctors for not catching her disease earlier, other young women have spoken out about the consequences of not being taken seriously.

Georgia Ford, a 20-year-old law student in the UK, said her heartburn-like symptoms were chalked up to alcohol misuse. She was later diagnosed with an incurable cancer.

Wakisha Stewart was also told her crushing pain and nausea was anxiety at age 31; she really had a type of heart attack most common in new moms.

"I want the medical community to start opening up their eyes and not accusing women or misdiagnosing women as having panic attacks or anxiety attacks, because it could be more," Stewart told Insider.

Some studies have found women patients tend to wait longer for cancer and heart disease diagnoses than men. One study showed that younger women were two times more likely than young men to have a medical expert give a mental-health diagnosis when their symptoms pointed more to heart disease.

Sharma encourages her fellow medical professionals to trust women's concerns — regardless of, or perhaps because of — their lack of apparent risk factors.

"The fact that they are in the ER at that time means that they're so worried about their symptoms that they're ready to drop everything that's more important to them," she said. "If a young woman comes in and is really saying, 'this does not feel right,' they need to believe her."

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