- Doctors told Kirsty Smitten, 28, that her chest pain was a pulled muscle.
- The UK-based scientist was later diagnosed with a rare and specific form of heart cancer.
- Research shows that women’s pain is often ignored by doctors.
Kirsty Smitten had enjoyed a normal day’s work and a few pints with a friend at a local pub before going to bed on a Friday in November 2023. At the time, she wrote on her blog, “I felt like the best I’ve had in years.”
But at 3 a.m., the 28-year-old UK-based microbiologist woke up to “a sharp burning sensation in my heart piercing my back,” she wrote.
Smitten entered a sports match and work event the following week before going to the emergency room, where a nurse suspected she had a blood clot in her lung. Smitten was traveling internationally for work, and long-distance air travel can increase the risk of stroke, so the hunch made sense.
But eight hours after he was admitted to the hospital, the doctor told Smitten the pain was likely a muscle pull from exercise, and recommended codeine, according to the New York Post and Southwest News Service (SWNS). After all, she had no other symptoms.
“You’re too young and fit to be anything evil,” Smitten recalled saying to the doctor on her blog.
However, Smitten wasn’t happy with the diagnosis, so she pressed for a chest X-ray and blood tests, and returned the next day for a CT scan. That was when doctors discovered a 6-centimeter tumor in her heart, “which obviously came as a bit of a shock,” Smitten told SWNS.
While doctors initially didn’t think the tumor was cancerous, three months later they discovered it was a rare heart cancer called angiosarcoma.
According to Cedars Sinai, cardiac hemangiosarcoma is an aggressive cancer that most often occurs in the right upper chamber of the heart. They can be difficult to diagnose because they are so rare, and the symptoms — chest pain and swelling of the feet, ankles, and stomach — are often attributed to other, more common conditions.
While surgery, including a heart transplant, and chemotherapy can help treat cancer in some cases, there is no standard treatment approach for cancer.
When Smitten — a Forbes Honors 30-Under 30 recipient who studies ways to develop new antibiotics — was diagnosed, doctors told her she had a 68 percent chance of dying within the year, SWNS reported.
She obtained a second opinion from Cancer Care in London, where she was offered an operation that would give her a 10% chance of living for another five years.
According to Smitten’s blog and Instagram account, she underwent seven rounds of chemotherapy and was booked for heart surgery on April 21.
“This is a constant mental battle between wanting to give up and feeling like I’m normal for the rest of the time or continuing to fight,” she wrote on Instagram. “I have to keep fighting for my friends, my family and my future, but it’s hard.”
Women are more likely to be dismissed by doctors than men
Research has shown that, in general, doctors believe that women experience less pain than men. That could mean serious conditions like cancer can be overlooked or ignored, Insider previously reported.
Doctors recommend advocating for yourself by describing how your symptoms are affecting you (“pain interrupts work and sleep”), setting expectations ahead of the appointment if possible, and getting second and third opinions if you don’t feel heard.
As Dr. Christina Johnson, a family medicine physician in New Jersey, previously told Insider, “There are thousands and thousands of physicians who love what they do, who love helping patients, who love answering their questions and getting these diagnoses.”
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