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How to navigate 'medical gaslighting' when doctors dismiss your symptoms

Providers don't always take patients' concerns as seriously as they should.

If you've gone to the doctor only to be told that your concerns aren't serious or that you're "just stressed," you aren't alone. This unfortunately common behavior, sometimes called medical gaslighting, leaves patients — especially women — feeling dismissed. And it can cause them to minimize or ignore what may be very real, painful and even dangerous symptoms.

That's exactly what happened to Maria Garcia, who went to her doctor complaining of intense back and stomach pain. Garcia told TODAY special anchor Maria Shriver that, for four years, her providers told her there wasn't anything wrong and that she simply needed to lose weight.

Even when Garcia's symptoms got more severe, including vomiting and hair loss, her concerns were dismissed, she says. "I begged him for a CAT scan. 'Please do something, this is not right.' 'Oh, you just have to learn to live with it,'" Garcia recalled. "I started to believe them. I thought, maybe I am crazy."

It was only when Garcia went to the ER that she finally learned what was really going on: A 25-pound cancerous tumor was growing in her ovary. The team at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles was able to remove the tumor.

Stories like Garcia's are unfortunately common — especially among women and especially among women of color. Patients also say that their weight frequently becomes an unnecessary focus of their appointments.

Once she got her diagnosis, Garcia said she felt a combination of rage and relief. "I think being an overweight Hispanic woman was to my detriment," she told Shriver. "Everything could be attributed to either me being dramatic, exaggerating and being fat."

Part of the issue is that so much of "the data that we use today in medicine is based on research on men, male animals or male cells, which is just shocking," Dr. Sarah Kilpatrick, chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, told Shriver.

People who have autoimmune diseases can be subject to some of the most severe medical gaslighting. Conditions like these can come with nonspecific symptoms, like chronic fatigue, that may take some serious medical sleuthing to diagnose.

And for some patients, like Meghan O'Rourke, author of the new book "The Invisible Kingdom," their doctor's dismissive attitude towards their symptoms leads them to doubt the signals their own bodies are sending them.

"I heard everything from, 'You’re just tired' to 'Well, I think it’s just because you have your period," O'Rourke told Shriver. “I felt so alone when I was sick, and I distrusted myself."

Women want to be the good patient, right? They don’t want to disappoint their doctor, they don’t want to make anyone angry.

Dr. Nicole Mitchell

If people are experiencing medical gaslighting, they can try to push back. As uncomfortable as it may be to do so, Dr. Nicole Mitchell, director of the OB/GYN Diversity and Inclusion Program at the USC Keck School of Medicine, told TODAY that it's important to understand that doctors and patients work best as a collaborative partnership. And your input is valid, too.

"Women want to be the good patient, right? They don’t want to disappoint their doctor, they don’t want to make anyone angry," Mitchell said. "So I think it’s really important for patients to understand that medicine is really teamwork."

If you feel like your medical team isn't hearing you, experts told TODAY previously that there are a few key phrases you can use to get their attention — and to get them to take your situation more seriously. For instance, you can emphasize these symptoms are not the norm for you, and remind them that, while you appreciate their expertise, you are the foremost expert on what's going on with your own body.

Addressing medical gaslighting will take more than each individual patient confronting their own doctor, though. That's why hospitals are investing more resources in women's health research, training about gender biases for medical professionals and empowering marginalized patients to advocate for themselves in medical settings.