At just 27 years old, Amanda Lee was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. That diagnosis is harrowing enough on its own, but the story surrounding Lee's diagnosis is also incredibly upsetting. Before learning she had cancer, Lee had been suffering with abdominal cramps for months—the point where it was impacting her daily functionality and eating habits. When she was finally able to secure an appointment with a gastrointestinal specialist about her pain, she was fat-shamed and had her pain dismissed. Not long after, she received the cancer diagnosis.
She's been documenting her journey on TikTok, and her story is resonating with people everywhere—especially women. Why?
Because women receive higher levels of weight stigmatization in medicine, and it's an unfortunate but universal experience with women at the doctor's office.
In Lee's first TikTok about the matter earlier this year, she emotionally shared that when she told her GI doctor about her abdominal pain and that it was preventing her from eating, she said her doctor told her, "Maybe that isn't such a bad thing."
Lee, an otherwise healthy 27-year-old woman, was looking for help from an expert. She was experiencing intense stomach pain that prevented her from eating and nourishing herself (to the point where she lost a significant amount of weight). Rather than offer solutions or immediately take action with a battery of tests, her doctor fat-shamed her instead.
Research and studies surrounding weight stigma have concluded the same results: Many healthcare providers hold strong negative attitudes and stereotypes about people with obesity, full stop.
During her appointment, Lee told her doctor even eating applesauce left her in physical pain. She claims her doctor suggested her lack of ability to eat was a "blessing."
As the appointment went on, the doctor asked Lee if she was listening to what he was saying.
"I said, 'No, I'm still caught up on the fact that you told me it's OK to starve,' and he said, 'Well, you don't look malnourished,'" she recounted to TODAY.
The doctor declined to run any tests on Lee and wrote her a prescription for a urinary tract infection, which she didn't actually have. Understandably, Lee was devastated. She sat in her car after the appointment in tears and shared the experience in a TikTok video that now has over a half-million views.
When healthcare providers play into negative stereotypes about people who are overweight or those who have obesity, these judgements and perceptions directly impact their patients and the care they provide. Studies show that experiences of judgement and poor treatment surrounding weight lead to patients avoiding care because of mistrust. Weight stigma in medicine is real, and it can place patients in danger.
Lee Told TODAY she wasn't having it. She confronted the doctor directly about his fatphobia and how harmful it was. "I marched my little butt back in there and demanded an apology," she said. "He said, 'I'm sorry you don't get my humor. I'm sorry that you're sensitive and now you have to find a new provider."
After finding a female provider, Lee underwent a colonoscopy right away—a large tumor was found on her colon. Surgery led to the cancer diagnosis. She says she feels like her GI issues had been brushed off by doctors and nurses for a long time prior to her colon cancer diagnosis, and that they declined to investigate into her complaints further because they felt she was "too young" to be genuinely sick and instead blamed it on her "poor diet" and being fat.
Lee now uses her TikTok platform to encourage others to advocate for their health and their bodies, because weight stigma in medicine affects so many.
Many of her commenters share their own stories of experiencing weight bias from healthcare providers. Nearly two-thirds of Americans are overweight or have obesity (defined as a BMI that is 25 or higher). Imagine how many of us have experienced judgment and condescension in the doctor's office. Personally, it took three years to receive my PCOS diagnosis because my old doctor kept telling me to change my diet in order to regulate my menstrual cycles, even after tests came back showing I didn't have a thyroid condition. I had to switch providers entirely to get my diagnosis, get treatment, and become fertile again.
Too often, women aren't validated about their medical issues. Amanda Lee's story is powerful and valuable, but it isn't rare. What it is, is a reminder that women, especially those of us who are overweight, have to advocate for ourselves and our bodies when no one else will.