The Boston Globe recently published an article on Dr. Jane Weeks, an oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who declined treatment for breast cancer, passed out at work due to a pulmonary embolism in 2012, and ultimately died of breast cancer in 2013. I was a first-year fellow training at Dana-Farber in 2012 and vividly recall hearing that a well-known oncologist had passed out in the cafeteria. There were many speculations about how this could have happened, and of course, in an environment such as ours, cancer was at the top of everyone’s mind. Yet we never learned of Dr. Weeks’ diagnosis until much later.
The article itself was informative, although not entirely unbiased itself, written in such a manner as to engender shock and dismay in readers. However, it was the comments from readers in response to the article that were what actually shocked and dismayed me. While many expressed reasonable confusion about her reluctance to seek treatment, some used words such as “horrified [that she] had this kind of attitude,” that she must have been a “deeply troubled person” (even a “sicko”), that she was “incredibly selfish,” an “insufferable know-it-all,” and a “hypocrite.”
I now live in Pennsylvania, where John Fetterman just won a U.S. Senate seat after suffering a stroke in the spring of 2022. It turns out he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation in 2017 and chose not to follow up or to take medication for this condition, which is a known risk factor for stroke (along with several other medical conditions he has). In discussing this, he said, “Like so many others, and so many men, in particular, I avoided going to the doctor, even though I knew I didn’t feel well.” I saw no comments from the public with anywhere near the vitriolic tone exhibited by some of those responding to Dr. Weeks’ story.
Dr. Weeks made a choice about her medical condition and her health, as did Mr. Fetterman. Yet the attitude and tone of public comments are starkly different between the two. Dr. Weeks was portrayed as an acerbic know-it-all who made the “wrong” decision, whereas Fetterman is portrayed as “just being a typical guy.” From the beginning, Dr. Weeks was set up as too strong, too tough, and maybe even too … masculine? (The fact she loved the quote, “Jane Weeks eats nails for breakfast,” was touted as evidence of her deviance from what is generally expected from women.)
Women who deviate from society’s rules of how to seek and follow through on medical care are castigated, whereas men who make similar choices are not. Women who step outside the lines narrowly defined by society as “normal” are chastised, and men are not. This is gender bias, and it is ugly. Seeking health care (or not) is a matter of personal choice, and society must not treat those of either gender who make an uncomfortable or unfamiliar choice as wrong.
Ariela L. Marshall is an oncology-hematology physician.