BY TREVOR HEWITT
I found a lump in my neck when I was 20. It was soft and the size of a small grape. To make matters worse, it was the middle of my exam period.
Anxious and out of energy, I do the only thing I could think of to help calm myself down. I open up Google, find a medical diagnosis website and ask it just what the hell is wrong with me. Just 0.25 seconds later, I had my answer, and I feel the sharp pain of a lump in the centre of my chest. I probably had thyroid cancer. Or lymphoma. Or possibly HIV.
And just like that, I had become a patient of ‘Dr. Google.’
The internet has transformed industry. You can order your groceries, download movies and trade stocks online. Previously these industries required separate commitments. You had to go to the grocery store, head to the movie store or have a stockbroker. Most of these changes have been positive. They help us multitask and complete chores quicker. But the instant nature of Google raises an important question: should all conveniences shift towards the computer screen?
The hypochondriac in me says, no. The ‘Dr. Google’ phenomenon refers to using a search engine to try and determine the cause of your symptoms. Various websites offer symptom checkers. I know, I know. It’s my own fault for freaking out after seeing scary results. It should’ve been obvious to me that they were wrong. At the very least, I should know that Google or some random website isn’t qualified to diagnose me with a terminal disease. Perhaps that’s true for some, but it wasn’t for me at the time. As I scroll through my symptoms that were fine, I latch onto the few that aren’t.
Within 48 hours of finding my lump I was sure it’s early-stage lymphoma – cancer of the lymph nodes. I called my father on the second or third day and shakily explained to him what I had found. Around 24 hours and a train ride later, I sat in a walk-in doctor’s office.
I sat there zoning out and memorizing philosophy terms for an upcoming exam. I was trying not to think about all the problems I’m creating by taking this much time out of my life to go see some random doctor. After what felt like hours (but was probably more like 40 minutes), an impatient doctor took about 15 seconds to look at me. He told me that I’m fine and that it’s just an enlarged lymph node. Probably due to an infection or stress. He says not to worry unless it gets bigger than a walnut or starts feeling hard.
I’m shocked. Is this guy crazy? Does he even know what he’s doing? He hardly even looked at it. I ask how he can he be so sure and he tells me that if it were bad, it would definitely be hard and walks out the door.
On the drive back to the train station my dad tells me not to stress, and focus on my exams. A murkiness hangs over me as I make my way home. I can’t shake this feeling. I float through the TTC, deep in thought as my head bobs rhythmically to the grunts and groans of the metallic shell surrounding me. Yeah, the doctor said I was fine, but he didn’t actually do any tests. And he wasn’t even my regular doctor. I didn’t know this guy. I hadn’t even checked him out on RateMDs. Did he even have a profile on RateMDs? Eventually the feeling fades. I trudge home, falling asleep in minutes. After many restless nights filled with Star Wars and Reddit, a relatively clear bill of health is a welcome change.
A week passes, and I get back to my studies. Things go well. I finish all my exams. Another week goes by, and I’m on break. Then it happens again. I’m coming home one night and my neck is sore. As I rub it, my heart sinks again and I feel an acidic stress that pulsates throughout my body. Another lump. This time on the other side of my neck. I frantically rush onto my computer for my digital saviour. I search the causes of multiple enlarged lymph nodes in the neck and lymphoma pops up. Well shit.
I immediately check and the lump on the other side of my neck is still there, but I can’t tell if it’s gotten bigger or not. It must have. Why else would this other one have appeared? I keep prodding it, swearing to myself that it’s gotten firmer. Now I’m freaking out. This hack doctor has doomed me. I have lymphoma, and now it’s spreading.
I spend the next six hours on site after site, trying to calm myself down. Virtually everyone with my symptoms was given a clean bill of health by their doctors. I truly believed I was the exception among all the others with my symptoms; I was dying, my doctor just wouldn’t believe me. I needed some proof I wasn’t crazy.
This is all very egotistical, assuming you’re the exception to the rule. I’m not overly narcissistic. But here I am, a 20-year-old university student, thinking that my life is getting cut short. We’re not exactly talking rational here.
About a week later, I’m at my family doctor’s office. I sit in the waiting room, a temperate frenzy of children and their keepers. A children’s corner complete with chalkboard completes the look. After a nurse leads me into the examination room, I sit, waiting for her to come. All I can focus on is the loud thud of my heart. A dull ringing buzzes throughout my head as its rhythmic thump pulses throughout my body. Please. Please just let me be OK. An open door snaps me out of my daze. My doctor enters the room. She tells me I’m fine and that extreme stress is causing the lumps. Go figure.
The issue at hand here is that, for hypochondriacs, the internet is often a curse and not a blessing when it comes to searching symptoms. Before the internet, if a doctor gave you a clean bill of health, all you could do was go back to life. Even if you were concerned, the only option would be to go see another doctor.
Well, now there are millions of other doctors you can see. Approximately 70 per cent of Americans use search engines for health-related information annually. It’s everywhere. Search engines allow you to find exceptions to the rule. Google thrives on confirmation bias.
The 2008 July/August edition of The Atlantic ran an article titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Written by technology writer Nicholas Carr, the article discusses the potential negative effects of the internet on cognition. Carr focuses on the idea that the internet is harmful to how we think—specifically how we concentrate and imagine.
So, is Google making us stupid? I think it’s making us lazy. Carr says that, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Before the internet, when you had to use old-fashioned means like books for information, you’d have to dive deep into them to find out what you needed to know. Now, with the modern search engine, you can quickly zip along – find the specific stanza or paragraph you need without reading the previous 42 pages or doing traditional legwork.
The hubris of man as it relates to the internet is that we feel as though we have access to everything and can reach it instantaneously. That’s a problem for confirmation bias and hypochondriacs. We know that, statistically, there is something online that will confirm our fears, yet many search away out of excessive fear for their health in what becomes a game of online ‘Russian roulette’. Google both creates and exacerbates fear. It’s gotten so bad that medical professionals have coined a new term for online-based health anxiety—cyberchondria.
When we think of the term hypochondriac, most envision someone shuffling into a doctor’s office, a stack of disorganized papers printed out from various medical websites under their arm. This is actually pretty accurate, just swap paper for iPhone tabs. I used to be that guy.
That second meeting with my family doctor wasn’t the end of my hypochondriac phase, it was just the beginning. In the following year, I saw her probably 15 times. Maybe more. An irregular looking freckle here, a suspicious looking canker sore there. If it wasn’t normal looking, I would find it, and I would have someone tell me it wasn’t going to kill me.
It took a couple of, in retrospect, very simple facts to get me out of my health anxiety funk, and I’d like to share them with any other hypochondriacs out there.
1. Get the hell off the internet and do something fun.
Seriously. This is the biggest one. Staying home spending hours desperately to find that photo of a freckle that matches the one on your arm you’re worried about isn’t worth it. Book an appointment with your doctor, go out with your friends and do something fun. You’d be surprised how quickly you can forget about your problems when you’re in good company. On a more long-term scale, get a hobby or something else to become invested in. Just keep yourself busy.
2. Don’t be ashamed of your hypochondria – make it work for you.
I’ve gotten over my health anxiety, but I’m still hypersensitive to my health. I’ll explain. Once I got over the initial anxiety, I realized my health hypersensitivity was a blessing and not a curse. Now, instead of letting anxiety build up, I focus on improving my health in other ways. I started to go and see a naturopath (see: #4). I also work out a lot more now (see: #3). In addition to just feeling better, now that I’m more active, I have a better immune system. This means less potential illnesses to Google. It’s all related.
Lastly, understand that the only real negative aspect of hypochondria is the stress associated with it. It’s good that you’re conscious about changes to your body – virtually every illness is easier to fight in its early stages. Use that awareness to your advantage while working on reducing the amount of stress that comes with it.
It’s been said that running is addictive. I agree. Many also just find it extremely calming. It’s relaxing, waking up at 4 a.m. to run down the mist-filled streets of a deserted city. Challenging yet peaceful.
4. If your doctor tells you that you’re OK, trust them. If you don’t trust them, find a new doctor.
Look, at the end of the day, I liked that doctor I had to see around 15 times that year. She’s great, kind and a good doctor. But she wasn’t for me. She would always give me the same speech about stress, anxiety and university, but never did any tests. I wanted to know specifically why my lymph system was out of whack.
My naturopath has helped me understand the causes of my concerns and treat them through diet and exercise. I suggest that if you feel your doctor isn’t giving you what you want, just find a new one. It doesn’t need to be a naturopath, just someone that makes you comfortable. Comfort is key.
5. Focus on your diet.
Much like exercise, diet can affect our moods. When I say focus on your diet, I don’t mean restrict calories. I mean put good things into your body. Make sure you are drinking at least 1.5 litres of water every day. Try and stay away from over-processed foods, or foods that are high in refined sugar or trans fat. Eat lots of leafy greens, as well as other fibre-rich vegetables. Protein wise, try leaner options – chicken breast and salmon are great. Just eat real meals made of real fruits, veggies and meat. None of that processed crap.
I still find myself Googling symptoms sometimes. I had a canker sore last week and I thought it looked odd, so I started browsing for photos of oral cancer. I caught myself and I paused, asking myself internally why I still doing this when I know it stresses me out. After contemplating, I closed the window.
I don’t quite know how to explain it. I’m aware that searching about health problems online can cause me stress, yet I’m constantly drawn towards doing it. Even with all my leaps and bounds, I catch myself cheating sometimes. A query here. An affirmation that I’m not dying there. Though it doesn’t cause me crippling stress anymore, it’s still something I need to understand further. Maybe I should Google it.