Content warning: discussions of anxiety, chronic pain and illness, and cancer
We all know that mental health is difficult to talk about. People out there will tell those suffering they’re exaggerating, or simply need to “get over it”. In my experience, this is particularly prominent when the cause of poor mental health is something mundane, something every person worries about. Physical health falls into this category pretty perfectly.
In the current circumstances, of course, everyone is worried about their health and understandably so. Everything we consume and see is actively teaching us to be scared and cautious, so openly admitting feeling anxious about your health makes you one of the crowd. It would be more concerning to not be anxious right now, but those of us who suffer beyond the impact of the pandemic are ignored.
I have always been anxious about my health. I grew up very aware of life-changing and chronic illnesses through family members, which both assuaged and heightened my concerns about the same happening to me. My family are walking and talking proof these conditions do not define the individual, but I still saw it as a burden waiting to pounce on me. The conditions in my family are not genetic, interestingly, so my fears are grounded in the expectation I’ll be chosen to develop something by some power beyond my control. Again, this creates a bit of conflict, because this either means there is no need to worry until something happens, or by the same logic that my family members were “chosen”, I could be too.
I am an ambitious person, with big dreams and big plans. The thought of those being disrupted frightens me beyond words. What if I don’t get to see the world because I fall ill? What if I don’t achieve anything? What if no one remembers me?
Like I said before, everyone experiences these worries. It’s a bit morbid, but we will all run out of time at some point. The thought cripples me.
In my first year of university, I found a lump. I’d say this is where the anxiety properly starts to spiral. I was terrified, alone, young, freshly 18. Far too young to have my life disrupted. Notice the problem here? I have already assumed the worst and the “inevitable” is coming, fast. I cried for hours, I didn’t leave my room for two days, and I neglected to speak to anyone. Google became my best friend, and I convinced myself I had cancer.
Most would then take the initiative to go and get checked out, but I refused. I was scared, and my brain told me avoiding the news of cancer means I wouldn’t have cancer. Of course, this is not how our bodies work, but my brain insisted what I don’t know can’t hurt me.
Flash forward to the first lockdown in 2020, I found the same lump again. I still hadn’t been checked at this point, and intermittently over the last three years, I pushed the lump to the back of my mind, found it again, panicked again, and let my mental health get the best of me again. I can’t count how many times this cycle took place, but the cycle never broke because I never got checked. Finally, unable to continue this way, I went to a doctor, who examined the lump and told me it was completely normal. “No reason to worry, very normal, have a nice day”. So, that was that.
This examination caused two emotions. The first, instant relief. Three years of panic, anxiety, depression and everything in between for nothing? Great! However, this is when the second emotion hit me like a train: further panic. How was my concern dismissed so quickly? No tests were done, a quick examination by hand was all it took, so how did the doctor know for sure? I thought about every Buzzfeed or Daily Mail article I’ve ever read about medical horror stories, where doctors misdiagnosed and the patient lost a leg or something a week later. Am I the next example of that?
No, I am not the next Daily Mail headline. I am fine. Time to move on.
So, I moved on. At least I thought I had.
I started experiencing completely circumstantial pain in a localised area close to the lump I got examined, and so began the downward spiral yet again. The cancer was back. Maybe it never left? Now it’s spread. Where else has it spread? The doctor got it wrong. How long have I got to live?
The pain was inescapable, but it was all in my head. After weeks of having to retrain my brain to accept the problem was not real, it disappeared and all was well. Until I found another lump, in another part of my body. Back to square one. I diagnosed myself with another cancer, this one more aggressive and panic-inducing than the first. Then another cancer, and one more just for good measure, because everything comes in threes, right?
My health anxiety is rooted in hypothetical situations, which only makes things much worse. I recently had a panic attack at two in the morning, because of the need to have stitches removed after a surgery I don’t need for a cancer I don’t have. I make up situations and eventualities in my mind that end with me bed-bound, in a daze, unable to move, because this is the way I have trained my brain to work. My father and I are preparing to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in 2022, and whenever we discuss it a worry creeps into the back of my mind telling me I’m planning a trip I won’t get to do. It’s not “what if you don’t live until then?”, it’s “you are not going to live until then.”
My health anxiety is debilitating. Thought spirals and made-up scenarios cripple me and I spend hours bawling, bewildered, broken. This is the aspect of my anxiety which differs most from that of others. Most would proactively seek medical advice or accept there is nothing they can do to change their body and find a way to cope, but I cry, I can’t move, I sleep because I don’t have the energy to do anything else. I still experience random, disassociated pains like everyone else, which my brain pins on the cancer I have yet to be diagnosed with, ravaging my body without my knowledge. Every single ache, pain, and sensation is caused by cancer in my mind.
I know this is unhealthy, but this is the way I have conditioned my brain to operate. It is all my doing, but my progress to overcome this or openly talk about it is hindered by the way society views health anxiety. I mentioned this at the beginning of my writing, but those suffering in the same way I do are either met with the reception that everyone is in the same boat, so chill out, or are offered a quick fix solution and palmed off. I promise, next time someone explains their anxiety regarding their health, it is probably not as simple as telling them “just stay away from Google” or “go and see a doctor”. Sure, they are valid steps to help, but the anxiety is almost always much deeper rooted and detailed than your singular golden nugget of advice. That’s not to say you’re not helping, but it’s just not that easy, unfortunately.
Health anxiety is also unlikely to be fixed by a doctor’s appointment. Of course, it can dismantle fears if the problem is nothing to worry about, but the fears can shift to another angle, ready to bury deep in your head all over again. Like I described above, the medical and health side of my concerns were abated, but my anxiety then became about being lied to by the doctor, about them getting my diagnosis wrong, making an honest mistake. Health anxiety is not always directly about personal health, and it is important to highlight that.
If you are experiencing health anxiety of any kind, I personally want you to know you are experiencing real and valid thoughts. Yes, everyone worries about their health, it’s natural, but your anxiety should not be discredited because it is a result of something very mundane. It’s real, I see you, and I hope there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
I am still trying to find my way out.