After months of stomach pain and other signs of gastrointestinal distress, exhausting all the usual remedies with no success, and navigating the necessary insurance process and wait time, then 27-year-old Amanda Lee was relieved to finally get an appointment to see a gastroenterologist near her home in Los Angeles in February.
Her relief was short lived, though. After describing her pain, which was so severe she was sometimes unable to eat and had resulted in a rapid and otherwise unexplained 35-pound weight loss, her new doctor shrugged off her concerns.
"He said, 'Maybe it's not such a bad thing' that I couldn't eat because of my pain," Lee told TODAY Health. "He was praising the fact that I was not eating."
Lee had told the doctor she had been reduced to eating foods as simple as apple puree, and even that was leaving her in pain. To her shock, the doctor suggested this could be a "blessing." As the consultation continued, the doctor asked Lee if she was paying attention 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. Lee's local pharmacist, who by that point knew her story well, called her and asked why her doctor would have written her a prescription for that medication.
Lee was devastated. She sat in her car after the appointment in tears. She also made a video of herself talking about the experience and posted it on TikTok in a video that now has over 550,000 views.
"Then I marched my little butt back in there and demanded an apology," said Lee. The doctor did apologize, but, "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,'" she said.
"I am so grateful ... to everyone who reached out and said, 'Please go find another doctor.'"
Lee did find a new provider — a woman, Dr. Tahmina Haq — who was quick to validate Lee's concerns. She scheduled her for a colonoscopy right away, which unfortunately showed that Lee's colon contained a large tumor that was most likely cancer. While rare, colorectal cancers in young adults are on the rise. According to the American Cancer Society, 18,000 people in the U.S. under age 50 will be diagnosed this year. Experts are unsure of what is leading to increased rates, but stress it's important for people to be aware of colon cancer symptoms.
After her subsequent surgery, Lee was diagnosed with stage 3A colon cancer because her cancer has spread to her lymph nodes.
Months later, she is now halfway through her chemotherapy treatment, and "Everything seems to be going as planned," she said. "I still have a lot of hair, so I still look pretty normal. Chemo is hard, but I can do it. It's a small price to pay for a long life."
"I was going to urgent care for hemorrhoids four, five years ago, and the doctors would say, 'As long as the blood is bright red and not dark, it's OK,'" she said.
"I kept having issues, but I brushed them off because doctors and nurses kept giving me 'Band-Aid medications' and not looking further because they said, 'You're young,' or 'You're fat,' or 'Your diet is poor.'"
Dr. Cornelia Graves, an OB-GYN based in Nashville, Tennessee, commented on TODAY about the many biases women face at the doctor's office.
"Women are often just not heard. What people hear is if you’re crying that you’re hysterical or overwhelmed instead of that maybe you’re frustrated or scared," Graves said. "Women are discharged then and often go home and actually die from their diagnoses."
Lee has continued to post about her story and those of other women on her TikTok account. She feels that posting that first video might have saved her life.
"If people hadn't reached out or commented to that video, I probably would have just gone home and taken the medication and not acted on it," she said.
"One woman in particular sent me a message that scared me, though. Her husband had just died of esophageal cancer, and she said, 'You need to find out what is wrong.'"
Graves had a similar message for TODAY viewers.
"This is not so much about doctors versus patients. Our health care system doesn’t work well for most patients," Graves said. "It is complex, it is difficult to navigate. It definitely does not work for women and definitely does not work for people of color.”
Lee noted how thankful she is for her TikTok audience, "I am so grateful, not just to her, but to everyone who reached out and said, 'Please go find another doctor.'" She said this included doctors on TikTok, some of whom recognized that there are some in their profession who hold biases against bigger patients.
Lee, who is an actress and professional wedding photographer, turned 28 last week. "I was so sick, but I forced myself to get ready and have a good day," she said.
She's ready to continue to advocate both for herself and for others like her who must fight for adequate health care just because of their gender, age or size.
"I'm not saying the cancer outcome is normal. That's not normal," she said. "But the way he handled the situation is normal, and it is way too common. It's barbaric and something our medical system needs to change."
“If one woman wakes up tomorrow and hears my story and decides to find another doctor after a doctor had treated her poorly, then I have done my job," Lee said.
• Watch TODAY All Day! Get the best news, information and inspiration from TODAY, all day long.