Women & Health – Celebrating women Breaking the Bias and Living Fearless
8 March 2022: International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate the strength, courage, and resilience of women all around the world and acknowledge the obstacles and challenges they face and surmount every day.
This year’s IWD theme is #BreaktheBias. But for women living with chronic health conditions – like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis – juggling health, family and career brings on a whole set of unique challenges that are only amplified by the gender bias that all women experience.
This International Women’s Day, Crohn’s & Colitis Australia is celebrating women facing these challenges head on every day – and how they can inspire us all to #BreaktheBias and #LiveFearless.
Women like Lisa Belcher and Flic Manning.
We asked Lisa and Flic about their journey – as women – living with inflammatory bowel disease.
Q&A with Lisa Belcher & Flic Manning
Q. As a woman living with IBD, what unique challenges (that would not generally be experienced by men) have you had to face / overcome?
A. (Lisa) When I was diagnosed with IBD 4 years ago, I was determined not to let it impact my career. I thought that meant that I had to hide my disease so that I wasn’t treated differently from my “healthy” peers. This fear of bias was magnified as I am also a working mum juggling school drop-offs and homework amongst my busy professional schedule. I was worried that co-workers would think I couldn’t handle any more responsibility so I wouldn’t be considered for stretch projects or new job opportunities and that my career would stall.
While IBD is an invisible disease, it should not be a secret disease. Living with IBD forces you to overcome different challenges that make you mentally stronger. It puts situations into perspective and that is a diverse perspective that brings value to organisations. And for those of us who are ostomates, the physical differences make us more empathetic to other types of disabilities. Let’s celebrate the benefits of IBD so that we can collectively break the negative biases associated with IBD.
Reading the patient’s stories published by Crohn’s & Colitis Australia helped me realise what others have achieved living fearlessly with IBD. These stories helped give me the courage to openly discuss my illness at work, and I am leading by example to prove that having a chronic illness doesn’t mean the end of a fulfilling career.
(Flic) I encountered a general societal and medical stigma because of being a woman; the idea that my experience was only emotional not physical, that I somehow had a lower pain tolerance or was being hysterical because I sought help for my symptoms. I was often asked if I wasn’t perhaps just a little “hormonal” or “sensitive” by doctors and people around me. Because as a woman you have many physiological experiences in your abdominal area it took a lot of self-advocacy to be heard – the assumption was that it was all related to my gender and reproductive system and that I wouldn’t be able to distinguish period pain from colon pain. At the time, statistically men dominated the gastroenterology field, and so I experienced medical gaslighting a lot. It is now known how much bias against women exists in medicine but at the time, experiencing this as a female teen, it was terrifying and traumatising.
Q. As a woman living with IBD, how do you juggle managing your health, your family and your career?
A. (Lisa) As a working mum, getting diagnosed with IBD meant that I had to reprioritise my life. It used to be family, career, then myself. I thought that being a good mum and a successful career woman meant that was the only choice I had. I didn’t leave enough time for the self-care required to support my health. In the end, I kept feeling worse—physically and mentally—and it impacted all areas of my life, particularly my relationship with my husband.
It was counterintuitive to me that if I “selfishly” put myself first I would have the capacity to do more for my family and career. Yet that is what I’ve started experiencing when IBD forced me to focus on my health—both physical and mental. So now I believe that self-care isn’t selfish, it’s essential in order to juggle all of the balls each of us has in our lives.
(Flic) A chronic health condition like IBD is deeply challenging all on its own. Adding anything else to that requires a lot of self-awareness. And frankly, women are expected to play many roles in life and do each of them simultaneously and perfectly. The key for me has been investing in my self-care routines and making them a non-negotiable priority, and recognising that not being perfect but being vulnerable and authentic is beneficial to myself and those around me. I discovered that putting time into my wellbeing gave me the health levels needed to be able to give to my family and career. I became dedicated to working out what types of self-care I could do consistently within my lifestyle and budget, and it made living with IBD much more manageable because it also gave me a more resilient mindset, and made me more present to boot. This also allowed me to let go of notions of being everything to everyone – now I show people my imperfections and it’s so much healthier as it gives them the freedom to do the same.
Q. Do you have any advice / tips / pearls of wisdom that you would like to share with other women living with IBD – Particularly those that have recently been diagnosed with IBD?
A. (Lisa) When I was diagnosed with IBD, I was focused on the medical solutions like finding the right gastroenterologist and treatment solutions. Perhaps I was in denial that IBD meant a change in lifestyle, but in hindsight, I should have spent as much time on the mental health as I did on the physical health.
There is so much unknown about IBD, which means that there are no right answers or definitive actions you can take to get better. I found this particularly difficult with the information on diet…I thought what I ate could at least be something I could control yet there was so much contradictory advice. I got to the point where I was fearful that everything I ate had the potential to make me sicker. My stress and anxiety levels continued to rise, and I continued to get sicker.
One of the most helpful discussions I had was with the Crohn’s & Colitis Australia Nurseline. This conversation took place after I found out that Crohn’s had damaged my entire Colon; it was my lowest point as I felt defeated by the disease. The nurse spent 90 minutes talking me through all of the contradictory advice and various options. She answered every question I had and proactively addressed questions I did not even know to ask. She helped me come up with a path forward despite the uncertainty. This was exactly what I needed to kick-start my self-care journey.
In hindsight, I should have started to focus on my self-care in order to reduce stress from the start, and that is my advice for anyone newly diagnosed with IBD. Self-care will mean different things to different people. It could be support from a physiologist, dietician, or osteopath. It can also mean getting help through services such as dog walking and meal delivery. I stopped considering these splurges and started thinking of them as investments in my health.
(Flic) Please know that there is a community of people with IBD that will support you. Your body is not your enemy, it will sometimes seem like it is screaming at you, but you can make it a conversation rather than an argument by listening to it and learning to shower it in self-care. You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to do it alone and it is ok to not be ok. Make sure you have someone you can talk to about it, and if for any reason you don’t feel listened to by your medical team, please know you can ask for a different one.
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