There was a time in the not too distant past when the average person didn’t know they were seriously ill until a priest appeared at their bedside. Those happy days are over.
Today, anyone with a computer can find something to make themselves sick about with a couple of clicks. Any symptom becomes a harbinger of doom. A cough becomes a death rattle. If you end up with diarrhea courtesy of an all-you-can-eat buffet, it’s time to get your affairs in order. A new mole appears on your middle aged face, it’s melanoma for sure.
Thanks to the internet and WebMD in particular, we have become a nation of hypochondriacs. Prior to this information revolution, only doctors and nurses were consumed with the fear of everyday symptoms. That was because they were required to read and study The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. It’s a dull read, unless you come across a symptom that you have. Then it’s a real page turner.
But who needs books on symptoms? We have WedMD, Healthline, Mayo Clinic and a gazillion bloggers dishing out fodder for sleepless nights and health related nightmares. Just search “check your symptoms” on Google. There are over a million results. Something for everyone.
By the way,the term hypochondria is going out of vogue. In our politically correct world, it’s being replaced with illness anxiety disorder. That’s good news for hypochondriacs because disorders sound serious. Informing friends and family that you’ve been diagnosed with illness anxiety disorder will elicit concerned looks instead of eyerolls.
The popularity of hypochondria is exploding due to internet access. Now there’s a mental illness diagnosis for surfing the internet in search of medical information. It’s called cyberchondria. Great name. Psychiatrists are experts when it comes to branding. Cyberchondria is one more thing that shrinks can treat and hypochondriacs can worry about. What a win-win.
To see how this all works, let’s venture into the digital world of self-diagnosis. You develop a cough. It’s the dead of winter. Everybody’s hacking away. There’s nothing to worry about.
A week later, you’re still coughing. So, just to make sure it’s nothing serious you fire up the laptop and cruise over to WebMD. You type in “cough.” There are over 2000 results for cough on the website and rather than go through all that, you just click the first link.
There are a couple of paragraphs which describe what a cough is, but you have zero interest in that so you click the “Causes” button. Down the rabbit hole you go.
You’re on the Cough Causes page for ten seconds when you read, “a cough that persists may signal an underlying cause.” Uh oh. You don’t bother reading another word in that paragraph. Instead, you scan down the list of possible causes. You skip the ones that are common in children because, face it, you haven’t been a kid in a few decades.
Now, in this situation, what exactly do you focus on? Something run of the mill? Hell no.
First stop. COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). You click on that link. You don’t bother reading the paragraph that describes the disease. No, you go directly to the Symptoms button.
“Shortness of breath with physical activity.” You remember the last time you shoveled snow. You were definitely out of breath then. Does that count? Not sure. You move on down to the next symptom.
Wheezing. Are you wheezing? What exactly does that sound like? Yeah, maybe you are.
Tightness of the chest. Does it feel tight? Another maybe. That’s two maybe’s and a not sure. Not good.
The worrying builds until you get to blue fingernail symptom. You definitely don’t have that. So good. No COPD. You head back to Cough Causes page.
You continue down the list, clicking through and researching the symptoms of cough causing diseases including: cystic fibrosis, heart failure, tuberculosis and lung cancer. You save the best for last…lung cancer. You hone in on this disease because it’s the most horrible and the opening paragraph ends with an ominous statement. “Signs and symptoms of lung cancer typically occur only when the disease is advanced.”
The first symptom mentioned is a new cough that doesn’t go away. And your cough isn’t going away, is it? Your chest tightens…another symptom on the list. You begin to choke back tears.
You have been at this for three hours and seventeen minutes. Your wife calls down to you for the third and final time, “Dinner is on the table. Are you coming or not?”
You manage to croak out, “I’ll be up in a little bit. You can start without me.” You voice sounds odd. It’s hoarse. That’s also on the dreaded list. You stifle a cry and pound your fist on the desk. Now, your hand hurts. Bone pain? Oh my God, that’s there, too.
A headache begins to set in. That’s the last symptom on the Lung Cancer Symptoms page. It’s all happening so fast! How much time do I have left? Oh, what a cruel world this is.
You try to be optimistic. “Maybe I’ve caught it in time,” you whisper to yourself. The hope fades. You bury your face in your hands and sob.
Doomed. That’s what you are.
By the time you’re able to get an appointment and see your doctor, the cough is long gone. Still, you share your grave concerns with your doctor. He tells you that all you had was a cold. He sees no reason to order xrays, CT scans, sputum cytology or lung biopsies that were listed on the Lung Cancer Tests and Diagnosis page on WebMD.
For some insane reason, you feel disappointed.
“There is one thing you can do to make it better,” the man in white coat says.
You brighten. “Really? What is it, doctor?”
“Stop reading medical information on the internet.”
“I was on WebMD.”
“Well, how about mayoclinic.com?”
The doctor exits the exam room without saying a word and leaves you with your thoughts.
“Some doctor he is,” you mumble under your breath. He finds nothing wrong and I still have to pay my deductible. What a racket.
Then, as you slip into your shoes you notice something odd. Your left big toe feels a bit numb. It’s probably these new shoes, you think. Yeah, that’s it.
But what if it isn’t?
“I’ll check it out when I get home,” you tell the empty room. “Better safe than sorry.”