My aunt died yesterday.
I am in Wyoming, spending time with my cousins and helping to arrange for her funeral, so the blog is going to be quiet for a little while. But before I go, I want to say a few things.
My aunt died of cervical cancer, which metastasized to her lungs, spine and brain. She first found out about the cancer in late February. After a few weeks of treatment, it became clear that she did not have long to live, but none of us expected it to happen this quickly.
I should say right away that I have not been particularly close to my aunt since I was a child. She moved away from the rest of my family a few years ago, and I hadn’t seen her since then. I came out to Wyoming to be with my mother, who lost her little sister, and my cousins, who lost their mother. Everything I am about to say is conjecture.
My aunt was fat, like most of the women in my family. She had not been to a doctor in years; she finally went because the pain had gotten so bad that she couldn’t go about her daily business. By then, it was too late. The cancer had spread, and the treatments were ineffective.
I believe she died because of fat prejudice – in the medical profession, and in the world at large. I believe she had one too many bad experiences with a doctor or nurse, had heard one too many times that she had to lose weight “or else” – or that none of that happened, but she was so afraid that it would that she didn’t give herself the chance to find out. I believe she stopped going to the doctor because she was too afraid of what would happen when she got there.
I believe these things because they could easily happen to me. I went for years without seeing a doctor, in part because I was moving around the country and transferring between jobs and graduate school… but also because I could never quite get up the nerve. I have never had a bad experience with a doctor (the only time weight has come up is when I have raised it), but every time I have to go in I dread being weighed, I’m terrified, I do whatever I can to avoid it, even if that means skipping the doctor altogether.
And that makes me angry. I want doctors to treat the patients they have in front of them, not the patients they wish they had. I want medical schools to teach their students more than just anti-fat scare tactics. I don’t know how to make that happen, but until we do I want fat people to share their experiences of prejudice in health care – but also our experiences with fat-friendly providers, because I don’t want us to scare ourselves into more avoidance. It’s not enough, but it might have saved my aunt.