Health

The woman thought it was a swollen armpit, pregnancy fatigue. She had lymphoma.

The woman thought it was a swollen armpit, pregnancy fatigue. She had lymphoma.

  • Erin Basinger thought she had a swollen armpit and was tired because she was a new mom.
  • She thinks fatphobia delayed her diagnosis of stage four cancer.
  • Obese pregnant women receive negative messages from clinicians, including that they are bad moms.

When Erin Basinger went wedding dress shopping in 2019, she struggled to find bras that would accommodate her growing underarms and dresses that wouldn’t accentuate her figure.

So she bought a wireless bra and a looser dress, and tried to shake off her lump concerns. After all, she’s always had some fat in that area and recently had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome. Perhaps, she thought, the procedure had redistributed fat or swelling.

Even as it continued to grow during and after her first pregnancy in 2020, Basinger attributed it to hormones. She attended standard prenatal and postpartum visits, and the doctor expressed no concern.

Basinger, now 36, also struggled with extreme fatigue — “screaming-singing” to keep her eyes open in the car, and stopping to take a nap when that didn’t work. Still, she concluded, that’s what pregnancy and new parenthood must be like.

But more than six months after giving birth, the mass had grown to the size of a grapefruit. After consulting with her sister, a nurse, Basinger visited a new doctor in December 2021 to ask him specifically about the lump.

Several tests and referrals later, she was diagnosed stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She had an aggressive subtype that spread to her head, neck, chest, abdomen, pelvis and parts of her bones.

“My PET scan lit up like a Christmas tree,” she said. “It was scary in general, and it was scary for me because I had a seven-month-old child.”

She shared her story – including how she thinks Weight stigma played a role in her delayed diagnosis — with Insider to encourage women to stand up for themselves and validate pregnant women who also feel they’ve been overlooked, if not outright ridiculed, for their weight.

“I want other people to know: I’m fighting for you, even if you feel like you can’t fight for yourself,” she said.

Basinger suspects doctors dismissed lump as ‘just fat’

Basinger, a professor of communications for the University of North Carolina Charlotte’s graduate health psychology program, she wishes she had better advocated for herself when she first thought something was wrong. “That’s my biggest regret,” she said.

But she also can’t help but think that weight stigma contributed to her delayed diagnosis. “In hindsight, I think it might have been incompetence,” she said. “I suspect there was probably some fat phobia there as well, like, ‘She’s fat, so this is probably just fat.'”

She has a lifetime of anecdotes to back up that suspicion. Doctors attributed her rheumatoid arthritis to obesity, for example, and said her request to be tested for PCOS was only an “excuse” for her size.

“Every time I went to the doctor, it was like, ‘Well, it’s probably because of your weight,'” she said. “And it’s like, ‘I think if I hurt my elbow, it’s just because I hurt my elbow.'”

That didn’t change either before or during her pregnancy. When she she removed her IUD, the gynecologist warned her that infertility and pregnancy loss were possible. “Her words were really just a dark cloud over my pregnancy because I was constantly afraid I was going to miscarry,” Basinger said.

Doctors also told her that if she gained more than 19 kilograms during pregnancy, she would have to leave the state-of-the-art surgery where she was being monitored to give birth in a hospital with poor ratings because it had an intensive care unit.

“I felt like this consequence was hanging over my head,” Basinger said.

Weight stigma may contribute to poorer outcomes for obese pregnant women

Although there are connections between larger bodies and pregnancy complicationsit is unclear how much of it is physiological (fats affects hormone storage) vs. structural (ultrasound does not work well on larger bodies or clinicians not trained to administer anesthesia to people with more adipose tissue).

Confounding issues like increased risk of gestational diabetes in older and expectant mothers they play a role.

In general, health behavior – how you eat, move, sleepand stress management, for example – are better indicators of health than size, pregnant or not, the evidence suggests.

But health professionals often emphasize a pregnant woman’s weight above all else, leading to guilt and shame, which in itself diminishes health, research shows.

In her October 2022 study. conducted with colleagues from UNC Margaret M Quinlan and Margaret Rawlings, surveyed 237 obese people about the messages they received before, during and after pregnancy. They found that the most memorable messages came from health professionals, and the vast majority of those messages were negative.

For example, clinicians insinuated that fat moms were bad moms and that it was their fault that medical equipment was not made for their bodies.

Some pregnant women also reported being denied fertility treatment or care by midwives based on their size. “It’s flat out saying, ‘We don’t think you deserve to reproduce at your size,’ or, ‘Your body isn’t capable of doing this naturally,'” Basinger said.

Others said that losing weight during pregnancy is praised, despite the dangersand that they are encouraged to breastfeed in order to lose weight – not because of it its benefits for the baby. One participant said her doctor blamed her size for her pregnancy loss.

Erin Basinger with son Joiner

Erin Basinger with her son Joiner, now 17 months old.


Easterday Creative



These direct and indirect messages are not only harmful, but can exacerbate mental and physical health problems in obese pregnant women. One study pregnancy weight stigma was found to be associated with poorer health care treatment, mental health symptoms, poorer health behaviors, and negative pregnancy outcomes.

In one extreme example, a participant in Basinger’s survey said her stillbirth was linked to weight stigma. When the external monitor stopped working during labor, she said clinicians assumed it was because of her size, not a malfunctioning equipment, and were unable to fix it. When the nurse finally helped, she said, “My baby was dead.”

Basinger went through six rounds of chemotherapy while mothering the baby

After being diagnosed with cancer, she went through six rounds of chemotherapy, which she said were “terrible”.

She is now in remission and is grateful to her hematologist who focused on treating her cancer – not her weight.

“I don’t often have amazing experiences with doctors, so I’m very grateful that I received competent care from him because he saved my life in a very literal way,” she said.

He hopes that sharing his experiences and those of others will inspire more doctors like him. In the meantime, she encourages fat moms-to-be to keep looking clinicians involving weight and to fight stigma by educating themselves with books like “Fat and fertile.

“It was so comforting to find those resources and know that my body is powerful and beautiful and can bring a healthy baby into the world,” Basinger said. “And I did, contrary to what the doctors told me would happen. I had a beautiful baby boy who is just the light of my life.”



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