In the past year, I have suffered from: inflammatory breast cancer (heat rash), colon cancer (tomato skins, ahem, in the toilet), skin cancer (cut on my forehead), melanoma of the eye (it’s a real thing, and why not? I was seeing spots), serotonin syndrome (thought I doubled up on my anti-anxiety medication—oh, the irony), bladder cancer (drank a red Gatorade) and the beginnings of ALS (dropped a fork). When a genetic counselor told me that I have a weird Ashkenazi mutation that has been linked to breast cancer in .0000002 percent of the population of Israel, I started picking out coffins. I’m almost not kidding.
It should be noted that I am also still alive and, as far as I’m aware—That’s the key phrase here! Because who really knows, right? A tumor could be growing inside my body RIGHT NOW WITHOUT MY KNOWING ABOUT IT—I have none of these illnesses.
I realized things were getting out of control when I asked my son to take an iPhone photo of my forehead to capture a possible mole. He thought we were just taking selfies. I thought I was dying.
Yeah, I need help.
I’ve dealt with anxiety issues since college. For the most part, I’ve done pretty well. I’ve written about coping with panic attacks for The New York Times. I let the “Today” show follow me into a crowded subway, for God’s sake, to prove that it’s possible to overcome fear of crowds. My rituals are done in private, in bathrooms and in front of dusty old hand mirrors; my worries lurk just below the surface. I am a naturally upbeat, capable, energetic person who carries around this quiet burden. Nobody really grasps the true extent of it except my husband, also known as The Most Rational Man on Planet Earth. And he finds it hard to understand.
“You’re wasting your life worrying about what-ifs,” he says.
“Do you know how many times you’ve worried about cancer? Hundreds. You know how many times you’ve had cancer? Zero,” he says.
But I do have anxiety. And hypochondria is a real thing, and there’s a rich tradition of it in Jewish history. Woody Allen. Philip Roth. Jerry Seinfeld.
But I’m not a caricature. I’m a real person who’s about to go bald because I can’t stop tweezing my hair, because I think there’s something growing on my forehead, and I want to be able to see it with a mirror, so I can compare it to Google images of melanoma. Rational, right?
Social media doesn’t help. It really, really doesn’t help. All it does is emphasize the gigantic crapshoot that is life. Every day, I stumble upon a GoFundMe page or fundraiser chronicling the horrible tale of someone struck down by a fatal illness in the prime of life. I was lazily scrolling Twitter one afternoon when an acquaintance posted the story of Matt Bencke, a big-time Seattle entrepreneur who was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer after thinking he had a UTI. He wrote a piece for Wired headlined “The Day I Found Out My Life Was Hanging By a Thread.” (If you want to terrify yourself, go ahead and read it.) Of course, I clicked. Then I became consumed by his story. I visited his public Facebook page, chronicling his tragic decline. When he died last week, I felt like someone I knew had died. When this weird thing cropped up on my forehead, I immediately remembered an article about Mary Elizabeth Williams, a journalist who thought she just had a scab on her scalp but ended up with stage 4 melanoma. Earlier this year, I thought my stomach looked a bit lopsided, and I remembered the article in Vanity Fair by Marjorie Williams about discovering liver cancer when she noticed that her stomach tilted a bit to one side. This is how life blindsides you. Benign moments turn sour in an instant. And every second brings a fresh opportunity for grim discovery.
And it happened to all of them! So why not me?
This is not a productive line of thinking. I know this. I am not a stupid person. In fact, sometimes I feel sorry for myself, because I know that, since college, a good portion of my brain has been occupied by catastrophic scenarios that will probably never happen. School came easily to me. I work hard. I’ve been successful. But I sometimes think about how much more I could be capable of if I weren’t spending part of my time Googling various ways to die. It makes me sad and angry with myself. I’m not saying I’d be a rocket scientist if not for imaginary melanoma, but I’d probably have written a couple of books or something.
About that: I have a solitary profession—writing—which lends itself to easy access to worry. Nobody’s looking over my shoulder or summoning me to a meeting when I’m reading these horror stories. I can pull off my shirt and palpate my breasts like a crazed burlesque dancer if I want to. It’s just me and my worries, here, hanging out, waiting for the next game of whack-a-mole. One worry gets resolved, and a new one will surely take its place. It makes life seem small and futile and so, so fleeting. And maybe if I brace myself for the worst, it will never happen.
For instance, a few weeks ago, I was convinced I had colon cancer. Positive. I saw blood. I just knew it. I was spending hours at a time in the bathroom, peering into the toilet with my iPhone camera. I would dread getting up in the morning, terrified of what I might find. I was chopping up crap with a knife on my kitchen counter like a garden salad, alone in the morning, drinking my coffee. I’m only telling you this to be honest—this is how much hypochondria can warp your behavior. Finally, after weeks of this, I’d had enough. I made a doctor’s appointment. My therapist had urged me to never do this—not to give in to the fear—but I was sick of it. I wanted someone to either tell me I was crazy or that I was dying. I needed relief.
I went to the doctor, and he was just about the kindest person imaginable. He took me seriously. He didn’t think I was crazy. He said that my complaint was really quite common. I expected—nay, I hoped—that he would just send me on my way, sprinkle me with invincibility dust and tell me that I was a young, healthy woman who didn’t need to worry.
Instead, he said, “OK, let’s see if it’s blood.”
Um, what? What?! I just wanted to be brushed off and reassured! Instead, I found myself bent over a table in a most improbable position.
“You feel normal,” he said. “Just as I thought. But I’m going to give you a test to see if there’s blood—we can do it right here in the office. Hold on.”
“How long will it take to get the answers?” I asked. This is telling: I didn’t use the word “results,” I said “answers,” because really, I had a question. The question was: “Will I live?” And this man held the answer to my fate.
“Five minutes. Be right back!”
He stepped out, presumably to get some torture device that held my fate. Oh no. I was going to have the answer in five minutes! There was no hedging. No time to run away. No time to ruminate and Google results. Right here, in this office, I’d know whether or not I’d been staring at blood. Right here, in this office, I’d set the wheels in motion for cancer appointments, chemotherapy, certain death. What had I done? I sat down and rummaged in my bag for an Ativan. I swallowed it dry.
He came back with a nurse and a slip of paper.
“You’re fine,” he said.
“Wait! You did it already?”
Apparently it’s possible to just swipe a card, and it turns blue (I think) if there are traces of blood.
I could have kissed him. I walked out of there, liberated, delighted.
Until the next week, when I found this mole on my forehead.
It’s really, really tiring. I’m not alone, either. There’s a sportswriter, Jeff Pearlman, who is successful and happy and by all outward appearances a totally functional individual. He also writes about hypochondria. I found him when Googling “hypochondria” (instead of “cancer,” for a change), and we could be psychic twins. Exact same fears. Same spirals of doctors appointments and terror. Same ruining of family moments with WebMD and obsession. I emailed him; he emailed me back. I have his phone number now. I feel like I know him.
Because health anxiety is awful. On the one hand, I feel guilty that I’m behaving like a cowering child in the face of imaginary illnesses when there are people out there coping with real ones with, you know, actual dignity and courage. I feel worried that my kids are going to begin picking up on my anxiety, especially my first-grader, who’s definitely not oblivious to the outside world any more. On another, I can trace the roots of my health anxiety to several places and overanalyze my past (a mom with health problems, a hyper-sensitive nature as a kid, who knows), but that doesn’t really help me now. I’m at a crossroads. I want things to be different. I have an awesome life: a husband who should be sainted for time served reassuring me, two kids who are fantastic, a career I’ve always wanted in a community I really love.
But, see, I can’t stop touching my forehead. And that compulsion is very, very real. Real as any tumor.