Is There A Hypochondriac In The House?


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Ask almost any cancer survivor about whether they have become a bit of a hypochondriac, and the answer is usually a resounding yes. I have a confession to make. I swing from extreme hypochondria to total denial of any symptoms I may have. When you have a disease that can travel to your lungs, bones, liver, and brain (and sometimes skin, pancreas, ovaries, and uterus, particularly if you have a BRCA mutation), that pretty much covers most of the human body.

Most of us didn’t start off as hypochondriacs. It almost seems to be a standard side effect of the disease. It doesn’t help to be living in a time where medical symptoms and their potential causes are a mere Google search away.

We are not stupid people. We know that we can get non-cancer related illnesses like the flu, arthritis, and broken bones due to trauma. But still the aches and pains of everyday living take on a new urgency when they could be the early signs of bone or liver or brain metastisies, particularly if we don’t recall doing anything that would have brought the pain on in the first place.

Reading metastic disease questions and answers can really put a scare into you. Someone will invariably ask, “how did you know you had bone or brain or lung Mets?” and the answer is often a vague recollection of pain in a hip or frequent headaches or breathlessness. And it is so easy to think I have pain in my hip or bad headaches or trouble catching my breath when I climb up a flight of stairs. That realization combined with a short visit to Dr. Google can be enough to convince you for an hour or a night or a week that you too have metastatic cancer.

It really doesn’t matter if the medical literature says that rarely do bone Mets strike below the knee or elbow. Google cancer of the hand or foot and you are bound to find a case study or 2 of some poor person who had this rare metastasis strike them. If they can get it, why not you?

Much of this crazy making hypochondria strikes once treatment has ended and you aren’t due to see your oncologist for another 4 months. You don’t know if you are overreacting or if in fact you are experiencing early signs of metastisis. Many cancer agencies have a nurse on call who can help evaluate your symptoms over the phone. Your family doctor can also be a source of comfort in checking out more common reasons for your symptoms. As they taught us in law school, if you hear hoof beats outside your window, think horses, not zebras.

Some of the rules of thumb I have learned from my medical sources is to wait a few days and see, for example, if the body aches were early signs of a cold or flu or muscle strain from an activity you may have forgotten.  Keep a record of your pain – the type, duration, whether it is worse at night, and if over the counter medicines relieve it. If it is getting worse or is keeping you up at night, by all means get it checked out. It may still be non-cancer related but it needs to be checked out if only for your peace of mind. And sometimes it really is a herd of zebras rushing by your window so better to be safe than sorry.

A lot of the hypochondria does disappear with time, once you have experienced symptoms that can be explained as coming from non-cancer sources. If you have had a cancer recurrence or new primary, the hypochondria will return with a vengeance. If your body can get cancer again after surgery, chemo, and/or radiation, why couldn’t that cancer have spread before the recurrence was detected?

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There are no easy answers. Sometimes a recurrence has already spread to distant body parts. These should be picked up by various scans or MRI’s. Other times, your bodily pains are mere coincidence or are actually brought on by the stress of a new cancer diagnosis. For example, pounding headaches, nausea, and an upset stomach can be an an emotional reaction to the stress of a recurrence being diagnosed and not a symptom that the cancer has spread elsewhere in the body.

I can give a few examples from my own life to illustrate how this has affected me. When I was first treated for cancer, every piece of scar tissue seemed like a new lump. There were a few trips back to the surgeon to be checked out, more mammograms, and even a biopsy just to be sure. After hearing the message scar tissue over and over again, I eventually calmed down and stopped looking for symptoms. Shortly before my 5 year “cure” check-up, I stepped funny off a curb and broke my ankle. I chalked it up to bad luck and went to my 5 year mammogram in a cast and on crutches. When they found a new breast tumor, I was suddenly convinced that cancer had spread to my ankle bone. No matter how many people looked at the x-ray of my ankle, I was convinced I had metastic cancer of the ankle. Finally a bone scan and ct scan ruled out any metastisis to the bone and eventually, I believed the doctors.

Something similar happened after my last cancer when I tripped on the bottom step and somehow broke my foot. It had seemed like a nothing accident and again it took a whole team of doctors to convince me this was just a freak twisting accident and not evidence of bone cancer of the foot.

Finally, I had a week of burning pains in my scalp followed by what looked like hives on one side of my face. It wasn’t scalp or skin cancer. It was shingles. Painful awful shingles on half of my scalp and face but nothing that was cancer related.

Over the 27 years of fighting cancer, I have self-diagnosed myself with a brain tumor, lung Mets, hand cancer, and a few other medical oddities. Every time I am proved wrong, I become more reluctant to have my symptoms checked out for fear of being seen as the complete neurotic I truly can be.

Some of us find it hard to draw the line between thinking the worst of every bodily pain and knowing when it is time to seriously check things out. My inner compass doesn’t function very well anymore after so many false alarms. I have swung to the other side of the pendulum, not getting things checked out in a timely manner. I ignored the raging cough that lasted for 6 weeks and left me exhausted only to find I had raging bronchitis that could have been treated weeks earlier. I am now so paranoid about being seen as a hypochondriac that I let things drag on for way too long, creating both mental and physical pain that could have been treated more promptly.

Have you found a balance between hypochondria and getting attention for legitimate health complaints? If you have any suggestions as to how to strike the proper balance, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. If this is something you still struggle with, I’d love to hear from you too.

Sharon Greene  January 28, 2015

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33 thoughts on “Is There A Hypochondriac In The House?

  1. Great writing! Keep it coming!!
    I casually asked my ENT if he would rinse my sinuses out. Next thing I know he’s saying there was aspergillosis in your sinus. It abcessed and two surgeries later, a permanent infection sits in the white hole we see on the xray.
    I get a TB test frequently. It’s positive. CDC says it’s time to add two more meds for nine months. Ok. Not great for my asthmatic lungs. But latent TB is better than active TB.
    Hemoroidectomy nixed CA to FL Harley ride but fortunate to have found AIN3 in biopsy. Good to treat it before it becomes pure, unadulterated anal cancer. My HMO knows zero about my precancer. I had to inform him.
    ☆☆☆☆☆☆Remember Farrah☆☆☆☆☆☆
    And, finally, in the radiology papers the office hands back to me is the mri of my meningioma. OMG. No one ever told me!!!!!!!!!!!
    I obviously do a lot of research on the net. My mom was an ER nurse supervisor, one grampa was a pharmacist, and another was a dr, pharmacist, and inventor of the bazooka. A brilliant man still died of Alzheimer’s. I use the Merck manual. And the PDR. Why should I not take Tegretol as my first seizure med? Because there’s a 6 inch black box warning saying that it’s not the first drug of choice. My sincerest apologies for length.
    Be in tune with your body and fight for it. Research may save your life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, sometimes we overreact and other times we are really ill. I can’t break my Google habit even if it does result in some false alarms. It sounds like you have your hands full with a number of genuine medical issues. Take care of yourself and be your own best advocate, something it sounds like you are already doing!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I seem to go to extremes regarding my health. I’m either assuming the worst and off to the doctor immediately or like this 6 week cough, am doing virtually nothing after a walk in clinic doctor diagnosed bronchitis and prescribed puffers, which honestly aren’t doing much. I’m in the “its probably nothing stage” right now although secretly I worry it is something more than bronchitis. Its hard for me now to find the right balance. I’m glad I’m not alone!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As a person who has been vitimized by polio since age 4, and now experiencing the late effects of post polio syndrome, I can relate to your quandry. Are the symptoms from my old friend or just that which non-burdened folks undergo?
    What keeps me from playing the guessing game is having a reliable and understanding doctor who knows the ins and outs of me, and is open to a phone call every now and then, to help me separate the visits from my old friend, or that which is common to all.
    -Alan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d be a basket case without my non-judgmental family doctor. She will order tests or refer me to a specialist if necessary but most times it is something she can diagnose that is unrelated to cancer. Thank God she has a sense of humour!

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  3. Hi Sharon, it could’ve been me writing that post; that’s how well I can relate. I can’t count how many times I thought cancer had recurred and/or spread. And the false medical alarms: too many and too horrid. I remember I had a slight break in a rib bone that caused pain, and my oncologist told me it wasn’t a recurrence. That’s all he had to say, and I got all paranoid. Lately, I’ve been OK, and I have bronchitis as I write this. When I saw my general doc, I wasn’t scared it was lung cancer, which is progress for me. But just when I think I’ve conquered my demons, they come back with a vengeance.

    Terrific, insightful post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Beth! I’m glad I’m not alone here. The symptoms seem more dire before scans or oncologist appointments. Thank God my gp has a sense of humor and doesn’t treat me like a crazy lady when I see her for my ailments. Thanks for sharing your medical quirks with me!

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  4. I think you have all the rights to doubt everything and check and try to find answers (and of course, of being terrified!!).
    On the other hand, there are people (like my sister in law) who just needs to be sick or to have something. Before Internet, she had to use books. She even owns the one to know for what every medicine is (those that doctors have). So that way, she doesn’t only diagnoses you, she can advise you what to take.
    In Argentina you can buy pretty much what you want without a recipe, so she (and her family) auto-medicate.
    We learned to never tell her if we have pain because she comes up with the most terrifying deseases you can imagine (and how to treat them, of course!!).
    My brother is becoming a bit like her and going to the doctor for any little thing (and we don’t know if it’s because he truly believes he’s sick or because his wife is making him crazy 😀 ).
    Hugs! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. She studied tourism… I guess she thinks she’s already a doctor 😀
        There is a very thin line between overreacting and under reacting and YOU can’t risk it because as you said, you were wrong once. So better safe than sorry 🙂
        When your body tells you something is wrong, listen to it! 🙂
        Lots of love!! ❤

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Sharon – thank you once more for your thoughts. I just went through this. I debated about seeing the doctor assuming that I was continuing to suffer after effects of the last chemo and Neulasta. I gave in and called the oncologist Monday morning and he suggested I take my Tylenol – it was okay to take my lorazepam and calm down -and then to go to the emergency room if I wasn’t better after half an hour. I followed his advice and we headed toward the hospital which is about half an hour away thinking we could head out to breakfast if I felt better. I was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia in my right lung – my lung cancer is on the left. I haven’t been in a hospital overnight since my daughter was born over thirty years ago. But – I also discovered I am suffering from gastric reflux and that was why I was experiencing pain and weird discomfort behind the sternum – and of course I was convinced that pain might be cancer related if not a heart attack. Got everything sorted out. However, I can see that this will be a long and arduous journey. It really is a fine line between hypochondria and diligent care.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! You must have had a hard time breathing between the cancer and the pneumonia. I also have Gerd and at times, it can feel like a heart attack. I’m not sure I’d recognize a real heart attack now. It really is hard at times to recognize which symptoms merit prompt medical attention and which ones will go away by themselves. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences!

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  6. I, like you, tend to vary between the extremes. When it’s closer to check-up time, I’m a lot more vulnerable to thinking something is wrong. I think your suggestions are good. I also try not to Google things too much – or at least not take the results as truth.

    About two years ago now, I was walking on flat pavement in a parking garage going to my car after a work training. I was wearing sneakers. It was a nice summer day. I don’t know what happened, but I just fell. There was no raised concrete. There was no reason to fall at all. I knew I was hurt, but I was in shock. I got myself to my car and drove home. Still in shock, and then in more pain, I had my husband take me to Immediate Care to see if I had sprained an ankle. Oh, had I! I had sprained one ankle and broken the other. It was a long ordeal to heal from that, but no one could figure out why it happened. I had a bone density test and some scans to make sure it wasn’t cancer related, but everything that goes wrong or is unexplained makes me wonder if it’s cancer related. Luckily, it wasn’t. It’s just really hard not to jump to that possibility or conclusion.

    Thank you for continuing to share your story. ❤

    On a side note: Have you written about Survivor's Guilt?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing your story. It’s hard not to assume broken bones are cancer related when the accident that caused them seems minor and trivial. Yes, my symptoms and googling increase significantly when it is time for a scan or an oncologist’s appointment.

      I haven’t written a piece yet on survivor’s guilt although I touched briefly on it in my last post (I have it). Hopefully I will beable

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Sharon
    I swing back and forth almost daily. I have Lyme Disease which took over a year to diagnose. Before that big discovery it took a 18 months to discover a few issues with my heart. I’ve had Ovarian Cancer at 28 with a total Hysto, both mother and grandmother had ovarian cancer before 35 so that was cause for the alarm. I had brain surgery at 14 and again at 33 where half of my skull was cut out. I don’t get jumpy looking for things but with my history and how long it’s taken doctors to find an answer I’m the Google Queen. I actually diagnosed my Lyme. I’ve had implants and removed implants, they leave some funny little bumps. I don’t worry about that much in between mammograms. You have every reason to think ankle is cancer related, most of us don’t. I search for the presentation doctors give other doctors or the FDA, another good one is what drug companies are selling doctors. You read enough of those and you’re reading time is cut way down.

    Liked by 1 person

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