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Welsh Government ‘gaslighting cancer patients’

16 May 2024 6 minute read
Judith Rowlands

Chris Haines, ICNN Senedd reporter

Women with gynaecological cancers are facing gaslighting from the Welsh Government as well as the medical profession, the Senedd heard.

Russell George led a debate on a health committee report on gynaecological cancer, entitled Unheard, which warned that women’s symptoms are often dismissed or downplayed.

Mr George paid tribute to women who shared their experiences, describing their evidence as the most powerful and emotional of his 13 years in the Senedd.

The Conservative MS echoed campaigners’ concerns about the Welsh Government’s “deeply disappointing, dismissive” response to the inquiry’s recommendations.

Mr George warned Wales still does not have a women’s health plan, pointing out that Scotland and England published plans in 2021 and 2022 respectively.

‘Heartbreaking’

Mabon ap Gwynfor, Plaid Cymru’s shadow health secretary, said it is clear women are being let down at every step of the journey from diagnosis to treatment.

He said the committee heard heartbreaking evidence about the constant battle, warning women are often treated as hypochondriacs or a neurotic nuisance.

The Dwyfor Meirionnydd MS warned it is nothing short of scandalous that recommendations – which were underpinned by people’s experience – have not been accepted in full.

Mr Gwynfor said: “The fact the instinctive response of the government is to claim the majority of people are happy with the service means these women are being gaslit twice.

“Not only are they being told they don’t understand what’s wrong with them by the health specialists but, to compound things, they’re being told the same thing by this government.”

‘Tragic outcomes’

Sarah Murphy paid tribute to Judith Rowlands, from Anglesey, who sadly died shortly after giving moving video evidence to the committee inquiry.

“Judith’s testimony of her lived experience was heartbreaking and powerful,” said Ms Murphy, thanking Sioned Cash, Judith’s daughter, for her campaigning.

The Labour MS for Bridgend also praised Claire O’Shea, from Cardiff, who is undergoing life-extending chemotherapy treatment despite “doing everything right, as they say”.

She said Ms O’Shea launched a campaign to amplify the voices of women who have felt ignored by professionals, leading to misdiagnosis, inadequate care and tragic outcomes..

Ms Murphy quoted Claire as urging people to stop referring to ‘vague symptoms’: “We must move away from this – the use of ‘vague’ is loaded with connotations and it breeds doubt.”

‘Half-hearted’

Jane Dodds, the Lib Dems’ leader in Wales, raised concerns about the casual dismissal of women’s symptoms and the unacceptable delays in receiving treatment.

She said: “It’s a sad place when, in Wales, we are seeing women being pushed back again, being told to get back, get in their box, don’t moan, don’t complain.”

Ms Dodds, who represents Mid and West Wales, criticised the Welsh Government’s “disheartening, half-hearted” response.

“We seem to be turning a blind eye to the urgent need for robust investment and research, support services and comprehensive reforms.,” she warned.

Calling for the Welsh Government to publish the “long overdue” women’s health plan, she raised an alarming lack of awareness surrounding symptoms of gynaecological cancer.

‘Tone-deaf’

Sam Rowlands, who recently replaced Mr George as the Tories’ shadow health secretary, said he was sick and tired of the “tone-deaf response” from Welsh ministers.

He criticised the Welsh Government for rejecting calls to reinstate clinical capacity to pre-pandemic levels and only partially accepting a recommendation on awareness.

Peter Fox, the Tory MS for Monmouth, said he was brought to tears while reading the report which found women’s concerns are too often dismissed due to preconceptions.

He said: “It was heartbreaking to learn that so many women don’t feel that they are listened to, and sadly, many are losing their lives to cancer as a result. That shouldn’t be happening.”

Mr Fox said about 1,200 women a year are diagnosed with gynaecological cancer and Wales has some of the worst survival rates for ovarian cancer.

‘Medical gaslighting’

Jenny Rathbone, the Labour MS for Cardiff Central, echoed concerns about medical gaslighting, calling for culture change to ensure women are listened to and taken seriously.

Ms Rathbone, who chairs the cross-party group on women’s health, told the Senedd her own sister died of ovarian cancer after three separate primary incidents of breast cancer.

She agreed with Plaid Cymru’s Delyth Jewell who warned that words like womb, cervix, vulva and vagina are too often considered taboo or impolite.

Ms Jewell, who represents South Wales East, asked: “If even the words for those body parts are thought of as unmentionable, how can we be surprised that some women find it difficult to find those words to talk to their doctor about what’s going wrong in those places?”

“But as we’ve heard as well, many women are shouting about their symptoms, they have found those words, but they’re not being heard, they’re not being believed.”

‘Brushed aside’

Joyce Watson warned women have been ignored, brushed aside and ridiculed.

She said unless GPs and health professionals are aware of the silent killer’s symptoms and listen to women when they present, nothing is going to change.

Ms Watson, who represents Mid and West Wales, told the chamber: “Since the beginning of time, women have been called ‘hysterical’ and ’emotional’.

“Those are words that were used to describe some of these women when they were describing their own symptoms. It’s very easy to attribute those words to women rather than look and listen.”

The Labour MS said the report underscores the urgency of addressing disparities.

‘Not good enough’

Responding to the debate on May 15, Eluned Morgan apologised on behalf of the NHS.

Wales’ health secretary stressed she is in no way dismissive of the report’s findings, saying she recognises the scale of the challenge and has accepted most recommendations.

She told the chamber a women’s health plan will be ready by the end of the calendar year.

Accepting waiting times are not good enough, Baroness Morgan raised a 34% increase in women being referred for suspected gynaecological cancer between 2019 and 2023.

She said: “With the best will in the world, it is difficult for us to switch on this kind of capacity in such a short space of time.

“Going to pre-pandemic pathways … in the face of that increase is simply setting ourselves up for failure, so getting new pathways in place is the right and proper way to do things.”


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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
6 days ago

When you say ‘Welsh Gov’ you refer to Baroness Bumble of Gasworks Lane who is the standard bearer for the health service we have…

Any thing more is beyond her…

Evan Aled Bayton
Evan Aled Bayton
6 days ago

This also applies to most other conditions as well which are often set aside in women and frequently in ethnic minorities as well. So called vague symptoms are often non specific rather than vague and especially in relation to abdominal and pelvic organs need careful evaluation. It is their appearance that may be significant rather than their exact nature. Unfortunately the timely evaluation requires detailed history taking and rapid access to scans etc neither of which most health services are organised to do.

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