My older sister, Jan, visited me in San Francisco last spring. “You look great,” I told her, noticing that her clothes were hanging loose; she’d been heavy most of her life. “I’ve lost 60 pounds,” she said, and I automatically congratulated her.

“I wasn’t trying,” she replied.

It hit me then that something was very wrong, first with her health, but also with the way I assumed that her weight loss was a sign of well-being. My own judgments and shame associated with being fat got in the way of seeing my sister. Looking closer, her face seemed strained, and despite the constant smile she turned on, she wasn’t well. She told me that she’d been in so much pain that she’d had little appetite for months.


I asked Jan if she’d seen a doctor. She had, but it hadn’t gone well. The doctor she’d known for years had converted his practice into a concierge service, and she hadn’t wanted to pay the extra $15,000 to stay with him. So she’d made an appointment with an OB-GYN a friend had recommended. Jan’s eyes welled up as she described the visit.

She had run down her symptoms: vaginal bleeding, unexplained weight loss, and near-constant pelvic pain. She told me the doctor hadn’t taken her complaints seriously, dismissing her concerns and performing a routine examination.

“He didn’t do anything for me, and he didn’t find anything. He just saw me as a fat, complaining older woman,” Jan said. Demeaned and discouraged, she didn’t seek a second opinion right away. Instead, she explored possible causes of her abdominal pain, wasting months avoiding dairy and gluten and taking over-the-counter pain medications.


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Jan’s experience as a fat 59-year-old woman is hardly unique. Several studies have shown that many physicians consider the time spent with obese patients a waste, and they don’t hesitate to broadcast their biases in the examining room. Fat people are less likely to seek medical treatment because they know the stigma and lectures that await them. My oldest sister, Cynthia, who is also heavy, recently visited a doctor for a rheumatologic problem and was curtly told to “lay off the hamburgers and Cokes,” even though she never touches fast food. On her next visit, she brought along her slim and athletic husband, and says she got better care by association.

Weight has long been part of our family drama. My sisters and I weren’t as trim and fit as our parents, who focused on thinness as the barometer of our worth. Our father is a pediatrician, and perhaps the sense of failure that many doctors feel when they see their fat patients in the office greeted him every evening when he came home to his kids. Our parents believed that making comments about our weight and putting us on diets would help — just the opposite of what the American Academy of Pediatrics today considers better wisdom for preventing obesity and eating disorders. Criticizing us for being fat, instead of encouraging us to be athletic, became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Jan, who’d been strong, bright, and athletically gifted as a child, the fastest skier and the best at team sports, became the heaviest of us four sisters.

During our visit in San Francisco, I encouraged Jan to see another doctor to get to the bottom of what was ailing her. A few months later, she finally got an appointment at an internist’s office. A physician assistant examined her. Jan arrived at the visit weak and wracked with pain. She came out of it in tears, with no answers and no relief.

“She wouldn’t give me anything because she thought I was just trying to get an opioid fix,” she told Cynthia, who had accompanied her. Did the physician assistant think Jan was putting on an act to cadge drugs because she was fat, that despite her detailed and articulate medical complaints — not to mention her obvious and tremendous pain — she fit some undisciplined, drug-seeking profile?

The physician assistant did, at least, send Jan to have some blood tests. When she had finished giving blood, she was so exhausted she couldn’t drive herself home.

Very early the next morning, Jan got a call from the internist who, even though he had never met her, told her to go immediately to the emergency room. She was quickly admitted to the intensive care unit in critical condition, with a sky-high level of calcium in her blood. An MRI revealed an enormous mass in her abdomen.

When Jan was stable enough for surgery, the hospital’s gynecologic oncologist removed the largest endometrial tumor he said he’d ever seen, the size of a volleyball. It had peppered her pelvis with cancer, infiltrating her bladder and other organs. The MRI also showed spots on Jan’s lungs, likely signs that the disease was spreading even further.

In hindsight, endometrial cancer is an easy disease to Google. The first few hits reveal the signs and symptoms: unexplained weight loss, vaginal bleeding after menopause, pelvic pain. Jan had them all. I’m no doctor, and I know that physicians are not infallible, but it strikes me that those symptoms — the ones the patient came in worried about — should’ve raised red flags far more than the fact that she was overweight.

Jan went through a few rounds of chemotherapy and lost even more weight. She took some perverse pleasure at being able to fit into normal sizes and fashionable clothes for the first time in her life, not the unsophisticated, uninspired garments that most manufacturers muster up for plus-sized women. By then she’d lost about 100 pounds and, despite her conspicuous illness — the wig, the pallor, the fear in her eyes — people kept on complimenting her about her weight loss. They, too, saw only her size.

Jan died last Christmas Eve, six months after learning she had cancer.

Hers was an unusually aggressive type of endometrial cancer. Maybe she would have died just as quickly if she’d been thin. But I can’t help thinking that Jan might have had a better chance if her doctors had looked beyond her weight and their prejudices about fat middle-aged women; if she hadn’t been so reluctant to seek medical treatment because of the fat-shaming lectures she knew awaited her; and if she’d grown up thinking that her body was OK the way it was, and she should love it, move it, and take care of it.

Laura Fraser is a journalist and author of several books, including “Losing It: America’s Obsession with Weight and the Industry that Feeds on It” (Dutton).

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  • I am also a cancer victim who was fat. My symptoms were blamed on fat right up until my kidney tumor was palpable through all that fat. Had I not needed a physical for work and had the nurse practitioner I saw not decided to palpate my abdomen, I would be dead now. I had unrelenting back pain(fat), blood in my urine(unaddressed, attributed to “trauma to the urethra due to weight”), emotional lability due to cancer spreading to my adrenal gland(probably menopause or stress), shortness of breath due to my huge kidney displacing my internal organs and pressing my diaphragm into my lung on the right side(also due to weight and inactivity, though I was working full time, 12 hour shifts at times.) I respected and believed the medical professionals I saw. I believed that I just needed to work on my health. Exercise more, eat less. Problem was, I had a toddler to chase, an acre and a half of yard to maintain, a full time job as a nurse, and a host of other demanding jobs to do. I never had time to sit down and connect the dots myself. Looking back at it now, it is so very clear it makes me ache. I lost a kidney, an adrenal gland, my core strength, my job and my career because no one was willing to listen to me, and my cancer grew to stage IV before it was ever detected…accidentally. I am disabled because no one followed up and refused to believe anything could really be wrong with the fat woman looking for pity and pain medicine. Had anyone followed up, my cancer might have been found before it metastasized, and I might not worry daily that my youngest son will have to finish growing up without me.

  • In reading this article I felt as if I was reading an account of my daughter’s experience.She had exactly the same problem with the gynecologist and, like Jan went to another doctor too late. After surgery and chemo, Barbara also died after a short time.

  • Brought tears to my eyes. So sorry for your lose. Your sister’s story is an important one to tell. I will do my best to remember.

  • They are just as bad with other people. I’m 73. I get the senior screening, “did you fall in the last year?” Yes, I was on the trail and tripped in an exposed root. “I don’t mean that. Did you go to the emergency room?” No, I got up and went home with a scraped knee.
    I’m about 20 lbs over my optimal weight. Because I don’t have big thighs, they dont record it, even though my protruding belly is quite obvious.
    I think they are just under so much pressure to see too many patients in too short a time, that they don’t look beyond the obvious. Do you look like you’ll live and is there a drug or a surgical procedure for that.
    I feel bad for the doctors, but unless they are my age, I don’t trust how they’ve been trained. The best care I’ve had has been as a self pay, and I con’t do that unless I really have to.

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