Better I were distract;
So should my thoughts be severed from my
     grief,
And woes, by wrong imaginations, lose
The knowledge of themselves.
—Shakespeare

When I was in high school, I used to live next to the town cemetery. My balcony was looking straight to the entrance. I was 14.  For good or bad, at this age, I have seen way too many funerals passing under my window. I have never felt any discomfort with this, at least I thought so. After all, I didn’t know any of those people.  But this was the time when I started asking myself for the first time big questions: “Why are people dying? What’s the purpose of life? What’s my purpose? Why am I here and for how long will I be? Why is God letting people die?”. So, I believe this is when everything started.

This could be a promising opening of a horror/psycho/drama story, I told myself when Jane started talking to me about her problem. I knew her for years, but I had no idea that the real horror in her story was only now beginning.

Jane is 50 something, well-educated, divorced and very sensitive. Especially, when it comes to her health. She has visited more hospitals than one can imagine. She speaks like she has several PHDs in all sorts of health conditions, reciting their symptoms with a remarkable precision. This is her curse. For more than 10 years Jane has been living in a constant fear. Of being ill. Of being misunderstood by doctors. Of dying.

The only problem she has never tried to find or treat is the one, she later admitted, that she actually has – hypochondria.

When I was 25 my father got sick. I was the only one in the family who was in control. The prognosis wasn’t good. I was the one who had to be strong and help my mother and relatives take care of him, take him do the hospital when needed, speak to the doctor and then, no matter the news, pretend that everything is going to be alright. Nothing was right with me from within, though.  I had no one to cry with, because it was expected of me to be the strong one. This is how I went through the first loss of a beloved person – pretty much alone. And these pictures and moments got stuck in my head for long before I could be in peace with my subconscious frightened to death self again. But I was still young, so I went through it.

This is how many people enter the vicious circle of chronic anxieties.  Hypochondria is considered a psychosomatic disorder and it’s common for serious illnesses or deaths of family members or friends to trigger it. The condition is characterized by fears that minor bodily or mental symptoms may indicate a serious illness, constant self-examination, and self-diagnosis. Many people with hypochondria express disbelief in the doctor’s opinions and refuse to accept that there is no life-threatening medical condition jeopardizing them.

Once I had some terrible coughs and was hospitalized for real.  I thought I have lung cancer, but the diagnosis was different – pulmonary embolism. I googled it and it turned out it’s like a heart attack, but for the lungs. I survived. But as terrified as I was, after time I decided to ask for a second opinion. The other doctor denied the diagnosis and said it was impossible, but he didn’t tell what the reason for my condition actually was.

So, I spent 4 years investigating what has happened to me and that was the first step to my obsession. Since then, I have screened myself for all types of cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, various rare diseases.  There are a couple of hospitals I won’t go to anymore, as I find doctors there ignorant to symptoms that I am experiencing.

Hypochondriacs frequently hold the distressing belief that doctors don’t understand them and that a subtle mismatching of language and intention is leading to petty annoyances and even permanent dislikes. As Susan Baur points out in “Hypochondria, Woeful Imaginings” – they might be actually right. Some doctors refer to such patients as “trolls”, “nomads”, “doctor-shoppers” and most recently “GOMERs” (from Get Out of My Emergency Room). As an intelligent and educated woman, Jane told me that she had seen this attitude many times and it hurt her.

I am not crazy. Doctors need to understand that no one would behave this way just for fun. It’s actually a small death for me every time I step into the doctor’s room, expecting to finally hear what’s echoing all the time in my head. Many people have told me that I need to simply start thinking positively, or to imagine happy moments when the panic hits me. And I work on this, but believe me, imagining butterflies is not big of a weapon against the monstrous thoughts of having cancer.

 

FindMeCure Inside the mind of a hypochondriac
FindMeCure Inside the mind of a hypochondriac

The fear of certain illnesses has been changing during the centuries. Jane admits that what she is most afraid of is cancer. And this is pretty common, as cancer was announced the most feared illness of 21st century according to nationwide survey (no matter that it killed hardly half of the number claimed by heart disease). Different were the fears in the 18th and 19th centuries, though. At these times people were obsessed with syphilis as sexuality and morality were in a tense contradiction. At the same time, the fear of the Pox and mercury poisoning was pretty “modern” too.

Later on, the fear of sexually transmitted diseases remained, but AIDS became the biggest threat along with tuberculosis. Cancer replaced all of them, and not only in hypochondriacs, but among the rest of the population. A new type of hypochondria evolved out of that – “cancerophobia”. Many people, who are terrified, don’t even dare to pronounce it and refer to it as “that disease”.

I don’t like speaking about this stuff. But what can I say when people ask me “How are you”? Should I lie and just answer I’m fine? Well, I sometimes do lie. I hate to see the same look every time I start explaining about the latest examinations I went through. Because this is how I am. Sometimes I’m relieved it’s not what I believed it is. But then I ask myself, if it’s not this cancer, which one is it? It’s the tiny moment that brings me back to the same track of endless investigation of symptoms. It’s a circle.

Visits to the doctor ease her mind for a time, but Jane is not reassured for long and as many other hypochondriacs, she often thinks that the medical care has been inadequate. Stefan Ursu, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Texas explains to the HealthLeader that reasons for such behavior are unknown, but a combination of genetics, environment, and history of trauma may all play a role in hypochondria.

It has a lot to do with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In some cases, the symptoms experienced are real and physical like headaches, heartburn, digestive problems etc.

The worst part is not the hell I am living every day in. It’s what it does to my most beloved ones. One night I woke up with a terrible heartbeat. I thought I am having a heart attack and called my son. I told him I cannot breathe. He tried to calm me down and ask what I am feeling. I lost my temper quickly and yelled at him “Call the ambulance, I feel I am dying”!

I will never forget his eyes at that moment. They were, full of pain and panic. I was so convinced that I managed to transmit him my horror, to convince him that I, his own mother, am dying. This is something that you don’t want to do to your children or anyone you truly love.

Research says that family and friends are crucial for helping people with hypochondria. Therapy is important too, but the problem must be realized and accepted by the patients first.

I am now at the beginning of my treatment. It took me years to understand what the real problem is and find a therapist who understands it too. She made me remember these times when I lived next to the town cemetery, asking myself why people diе and mostly when they die. I do realize these are wrong questions in so many ways. What if the question we need to ask ourselves is why and when do we live? 

 It’s a constant self-enforcement and a real struggle to keep myself in control. But I do it for my children and for myself. At the age of fifty I know that the time left is less than the time gone. I need to live it the right way. I spent enough time being a shadow of this and that illness. 

It’s time to return to myself. 

 

 *Jane is a real person, but the name we used to introduce her is fictional. She doesn’t want to reveal her identity for reasons related to the stigma most of the anxiety disorders are surrounded with.

If you relate in some way to her story, tell her in the comments. She needs to know she is not alone.

Share her story if you think it might help somebody else.

 

This article was written by Vesselina Foteva

 

 

18 Comments

  1. a year late but still hope you ll see my message. i’m 18 years old and i started having my sort of “cancer phases” when i was around 15 years old. For 3 years i went from spinal cancer to brain cancer to eye cancer, colon cancer and right now i m stuck on lung cancer although i never smoke. i know i m a hypochondriac, but i can t help it i m obsessed. Everytime i m alone with my thoughts i feel all those symptoms i ve heard about come bac. Today for example i woke up just fine went to uni just fine but now that i’m alone in bed i just can t sleep. i m here writing to you instead because i need comfort. i just experienced shortness of breath for the first time in my life twice while trying to sleep now. i’m pretty it’s the anxiety but since i m going through a lung cancer phase it was not the best moment to experience that. i dnt want to live my life like this forever. it s horrible to have all these ugly thoughts in your head. writing right now i feel like coughing and it s not rly a cough it s more of a throat itch that i relieve with coughing. this stupid cough it what lead me to believe i was sick because i’ve had it for a long time.

    • Hello! Thank you for reaching us! Please let us know if you’ve been diagnosed by a doctor with any kind of cancer that you mentioned or hypochondria, so we can help you in the process of finding the right clinical trial for you.

  2. Very helpful story and also a pretty clear depiction of what hypochondria feels like.

  3. The messy work of tracing the long conceptual history of “mental” disorders is probably not to the taste of busy modern psychiatrists. But scientists should, after all, be in the business of evidence, not bibles.

  4. Hi haha and all on here,
    I am at the other end of the scale from you i am 72 and have suffered h/a for the last 27 years of my life and it drives me crazy along with that of my long suffering wife.
    I have had so many illnesses it is impossible to put them all down,since early December i have had brain,breast found a lump there,men can get breast cancer it scared me silly until i saw consultant,next got a sore throat then a cough.Scared it was lung c,finally had a chest x ray got the all clear,still coughing so now it is my esophagus,it just never ends,are all of you like this?
    I have been having psychotherapy but it still does not help,no reassurance helps it is a living hell.
    I hope you recover soon hala for this is no way to live.Best wishes to all Garry.

    • Hi all I am 64 and scared 24/7 like most hypercondriacs but I am scared to go to docs…. I don’t want to do nothing, I just sit hoping there is some one or something that will make this horrible feeling go away… it good to have some one to talk to that hopefully understand…

  5. Hi, I am fairly sure I suffer from this as well. I’m pretty sure my fear started while I had a skin infection from wrestling so I was put on Penicillin. After this, my kidney and abdomen started to ache and became filled with pain. I started researching why this might be and it led to me believing that the bacteria from skin infection had entered my bloodstream and was now causing liver and/or kidney failure. I was extremely paranoid and went to the doctors. They told me nothing was wrong and that I should just keep taking my antibiotics. My pain eventually increased so I went to the ER and I received the same advice but with a $300 bill. During the next several days my pain was so bad that I thought I was going to get sepsis. I continued to take my antibiotics and went to the doctor one more time. Before the doc shunned me out the door again, I SUGGESTED…AGAIN I WAS THE ONE THAT SUGGESTED that I might be allergic to Penicillin. Guess what, I was. There were so many signs that I was allergic to it I thought that the doctor would have thought of that before I did, but it turns out he really wasn’t even listening to me. The office is part of a massive health care provider as well which made it even more annoying. Honestly, I could sue my health care provider for not taking my symptoms seriously and eventually allowing my paranoia to begin. Also on another little side note, every doctor pretty much told me that even if I described every symptom that I had, they WOULD NOT help me unless they could physically see something wrong with me.

    After this incident, I started to think I had cancer and what not. I started to have massive panic attacks where I would walk back and forth and pray that the symptoms would go away but they didn’t. Anyway, I began to look up reasons why I might be paranoid about these things and I found that I was most likely suffering from hypochondria. I now know what I suffer from and instead of flipping out about every little thing, I instead think about whether or not I’m going insane again, and yes when I was suffering from this on a daily basis I quite literally felt like I was going insane, I was very paranoid. Though, sometimes reassuring myself does not help and when that happens I always end up researching symptoms of a heart attack, a brain lesion, etc. While doing this I also eventually end up looking up Hypochondriac symptoms and realize that I am completely psyching myself out. That is pretty much what has lead me right here! I just went to the doctors to get blood work done to test for any serious STDs that may be affecting me right now, but now I’m fairly sure that I only have a small rhinovirus and there is nothing to worry about.

  6. I have had breast cancer some 13 years ago … but I was like this before then …

  7. I’m also having an episode right now. Or actually, have been or the past couple of months. A couple of weeks ago I was convinced I had colon cancer, went to the doctors and he told me that that’s very unlikely for me to have, as I’m only 19. Now I’m terribly afraid of AIDS. I regret some dumb things I did at age 17 with someone who unfortunately in the end, couldn’t be trusted. I am so afraid. I am constantly fixating on possible symptoms to figure out what is wrong with my body. I hate this fear so much. I’ve started seeing a new therapist but I’ll have to wait another week to see her again and that is so difficult. I just want to talk to my doctor right now.

  8. Hello,
    My name is laura, i’m 18 and i’ve been just diagnosed with hypochondria. It started with brain cancer, then it was fear of stroke and heart attack and now it’s diabetes. Tomorrow i’m going to the doctor again to see if i truly have diabetes. This is a very hard time for me. I would love to be in contact with people like me. So by any means if anyone wants or exchange email numbers so that i don’t feel alone, i’m truly suffering

  9. Hello my name is Rocco I’m 13 years old and for 2 months now I know I have had hypochondria. I have been through different phases like heart attacks, cancer,
    And strokes
    Anxiety is something normal but feels like no one else is going through it and they are I’m on vacation right now and I’m still worried. I can’t sleep well I’m scared but I’m trying to see
    A therapist and
    That’s what you should do to

  10. After losing a close friend to suicide when I was 15 and then 3 months later losing another friend to an accidental drowning I found myself at that young age constantly being preoccupied with the thought of dying. I’m still on my road to recovery, dealing with the trauma of losing my friends at such a young age was incredible difficult and earth shattering. I have diagnosed myself with everything from cervical cancer to heart disease. Now, I am 17 and still dealing with my traumatic experiences but I am working on my mental health every single day.

  11. hi! i hope u can help me with this. i am 16 years old and i started having this lightheadedness 2 months ago, combined with diziness, tachycardia, shortness of breath and a terrible headache-which i don t have anymore. all of the doctors that i ve seen told me that my problem is anxiety/depression, but i still think it s something wrong with me, like phisically.

  12. My brother is 53 years old and was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s. My everyday routine includes strangers asking me about his condition, general pity, the “oh so young” parts and also, rare pearls of empathy: “is it genetically inherited”? I’ve started monitoring my memory and since I’ve started doing it, thigns became a lot worse. I forget names of things on a daily basis. I also misspell words when I talk. People say it’s just stress, but they said the same thing about my brother before the diagnosis. I live in a limbo that feels like hell. Should I get tested? Shouldn’t I? Would I be capable of bearing a diagnosis of gene mutation? Would I become crazy? Am I not crazy already?
    I feel nobody believes me, but I’m sure there’s something wrong inside my brain, something that will show in (maybe) many years. I feel I’m dying.

  13. hi everyone, i’m quite late on this but nonetheless felt like also sharing my story. I’m an 18 years old hypochondriac and this has rlly affected me in my day to day life. it started when my grandmother passed away from bones cancer when i was 11 years old. After that, i started having episodes where i was very sensitive to watching any doctor related series like dr house or greys anatomy. With time i started having random pains in my body and would always immediately think i had a very bad illness. My breast hurt ? breast cancer. having a panic attack ? its a heart attack. stomach pains ? an ulcer. And the list goes on. I have seen a cardiologist, done a liver radio, done many check-ups including allergies and the result always turns out to be okay, and that my body is still changing. I’m seeing a therapist for it and she has helped me but i still have that continuous anxiety every night before sleeping that i won’t wake up anymore. That is probably ptsd from when my cousin passed away at a very young age during his sleep 3 years ago. Anyways i wrote this all just to say we’re not alone and that we can get better with help.

  14. Hello. I’m 34 years old and have been suffering with hypochondria since I was 21 and fainted from a panic attack. I had never had one up until that point so I was rushed to the ER and diagnosed with anxiety. Since then I have had every test done under the sun. As an overall healthy woman the looks I’ve received while partaking in stress tests, heart exams, countless trips to the ER, multiple gyno appts to test for ovarian cancer, skin cancer checks and now my most recent breast cancer. Every day I wake up in fear. I’ve been so the doctors so many times in these past 13 years that I now don’t want to go at all. I know test results can put me at ease- until the next episode. I transfer my cancers and anxieties to varying body parts. It’s insanity and I so wish this would stop. I went a few good years with only minor hypochondria symptoms but today it’s back with a vengeance. It’s making my every day life so hard and I am so depressed that instead of laughing and enjoying this beautiful life I spend endless hours worrying and researching my next diagnosis. Has anyone found anything that helps?

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