Has this ever happened to you? You suddenly have a pain, or a rash, or an injury or a dizzy spell or you find a lump and it’s the middle of the night (because of course, it’s always the middle of the night) so you google your symptoms and fall down the rabbit hole of “oh my god, I’m dying”.
Well, maybe you’re not quite that melodramatic, but if you spend a lot of time googling unexplained symptoms, you’ll soon realize it’s almost always cancer. Or a heart attack. Or a heart attack brought on my cancer. Seriously. I once googled how to relieve a sore throat and by the time I was done I thought I might have throat cancer. I didn’t seriously believe it, but I did wonder. And the wondering is what freaks you out.
It’s not just google. Years ago my roommate and I had this huge medical book I’d purchased during my pre-med undergraduate years. It had an entire section of decision tree charts, so you’d start with “does the patient have a sore throat? yes? no?” and go through the range of symptoms until you ended with a brain tumor. Every time. Seriously, we started calling it the “brain tumor book” because we’d ended up at brain tumor so many times. Although thankfully we never had a brain tumor (knock on wood). It was just what we used in those dark days before google existed and one of us had something weird going on. Now that we have google, the whole internet is a brain tumor book.
This phenomenon of googling symptoms is so widespread that Harvard researchers actually did a study on the efficacy of using online symptom checkers. They found that only 34% of the time people found a correct diagnosis. Presumably the other 66% of the time they were convinced they had cancer, although the study didn’t explicitly say that. They did however note how much anxiety can be created by using symptom checkers.
Because we’ve all had this experience of the cancer diagnosis on Google, it can make us less likely to believe something is wrong when there is an actual problem. For example, the other night I suddenly became quite ill. I was in terrible pain and had a bunch of weird symptoms. I tried a few things that didn’t work and then, alone and freaked out in middle of the night, I huddled over the laptop and started googling. Soon I realized I was dying. At least according to Dr. Google.
So then I thought, wow this is ridiculous, you’re not dying, you’re being a huge hypochondriac. And I got up and went to work, because I’m a 50 year-old woman who grew up in the midwest and unless there’s a bone sticking out or you’re bleeding from the head, I was raised that you should get your butt to work.
I felt a little better with the distraction of work but then suddenly, I felt like someone had hit me with a truck. I went from feeling vaguely unwell to I’m about to pass out and die in the course of 5 minutes. I called the advice nurse who said I needed to get to the ER right away. And I argued, because who wants to spend the day in the ER for something that’s probably nothing. Despite the sudden onset of symptoms and how terrible I felt, I continued to work for a little while longer. But it kept on, so I finally left and headed to the Emergency Room for only the second time in my life.
And while I didn’t have any of the terrible things that Dr. Google or the Advice Nurse thought, I did need actually need care for something totally different. There was an actual problem. And, I suffered for hours and worried that it was something worse because I avoided going to the ER. The therapeutic benefits of an IV, pain meds, and a battery of tests to rule out your worst fears cannot be overstated. And I say that recognizing my privilege as a person with good health insurance.
I’m still not feeling well and as I’m recovering I’ve been thinking about catastrophizing versus minimizing. It’s such a balance. You don’t want to be that person who runs to the doctor every other day for every tiny symptom, but you also don’t want to be the person who ignores something serious. So what should we do when disaster strikes late at night?
I strongly feel it’s important to be active in your own healthcare. Know your body. Eat well. Get regular check-ups and preventative care. Use available tools (if you have access) like the advice nurse. Make sure you are using reputable independent healthcare sites to look for information, like Mayo Clinic, the National Institutes of Health, Cleveland Clinic and Medline Plus.
But the best advice is to trust your gut. I knew the other night something was wrong, I knew it and I ignored it. That could have been a fatal decision if my symptoms were a result of something more dangerous. Does that mean I’ll never google my symptoms again? No, I’ll still do that. But next time my gut tells me something is really wrong, I’ll challenge that “you’re just a hypochondriac” voice and get it checked out.
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