I'm an internet hypochondriac
I’ve been a hypochondriac for nearly the whole of my embarrassingly healthy
life. It started when I discovered my grandmother’s medical encyclopaedia. Admittedly,
it had been published in 1903, but I figured that as long as I didn’t read the
dropsy entry, or have an illness requiring antibiotics, then I was probably
on pretty safe ground relying upon it for pertinent medical information. So
aged seven I confidently diagnosed myself with Bright’s disease. I can’t quite
remember why - something to do with my kidneys, I think. Anyhow, I can happily
report that I survived this early setback.
In fact, my hypochondria went into remission for most of my teenage years.
I did have multiple sclerosis briefly one morning, but it turned out to be no
more than pins and needles caused by spending the night lying fast asleep on
one arm. And then there was glandular fever, but since I really did have that,
it doesn’t quite count. Mind you, my self-diagnosis of leukaemia proved to be
somewhat wide of the mark.
Unfortunately, this period of relative calm came to an end with a dieting
fiasco in my early twenties. I had been getting a bit podgy - too many cakes,
rather than liver disease - so I thought a diet was in order. It went well.
I lost four pounds in ten days. Very encouraging, except I promptly convinced
myself that weight loss meant stomach cancer, and contrived to stuff myself
silly over the next week just to prove that I could put the weight back on again.
I could. In spades.
This kind of madness has continued off and on for the last twenty years.
But recently it has taken a disturbing new turn. For I have discovered that
the internet is the hypochondriac’s best nightmare. It all started with a game
of squash, heat exhaustion and a doctor’s visit.
“You’ve overheated,” said the doc, obviously noting my fevered brow.
“Why’s that then?” said I, forgetting that I had just played squash in one
hundred degree heat.
“It’s a hot day,” somebody said, rather contemptuously I felt.
And if only things had been left there. But, oh no, the doctor just had to
pipe up with, “Well, almost certainly that’s it, though there are some very
rare conditions which can cause overheating. But there’s no need to worry about
them, and I’m not going to tell you about them anyway, because it’ll only frighten
Well, what the hell did he mean by that!? I just had to find out. And that’s
when it occurred to me, use Google! So I typed in “hot flushes”. Menopause,
it replied. I contemplated this possibility for perhaps somewhat longer than
a man in his early forties ought to, but even I couldn’t quite believe that
I was going through the change. So what else might it be? Tamoxifen? Nope. A
tumour on the thyroid gland? Ah, that was more like it, but they’re usually
benign, so not too scary. And then I saw the words guaranteed to precipitate
a hot flush in any self-respecting hypochondriac. Pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is not an illness that tends to have a happy outcome. So,
needless to say, I immediately became convinced that I was suffering from it.
But what to do? I was much too scared to do further research on the net. And
anyway what was the point in finding out how much time I didn’t have left? And
then I hit upon a harebrained scheme. People with fast acting terminal illnesses
must notice physical decline pretty quickly. So why not set myself a daily physical
test – like 2000 metres on a rowing machine – to see whether I got any worse
at it? If in a month I hadn’t, then I was probably home clear.
This wasn’t a very clever plan. Its major flaw became apparent some seven
minutes after I had embarked on it. Lying panting on the floor in a pool of
sweat next to the rowing machine, I realised with horror that I was going to
have to repeat the whole process again, just as quickly, the next day.
And then the one after that, and so on for a month. At that rate, more than
likely I’d expire with a coronary long before my pancreas shuffled off its mortal
coil. But did I let this thought stop me? Not a bit of it. The next morning
found me astride the rowing machine, eyes bulging with effort, or possibly hyperthyroidism,
desperately chasing the clock. Could I match yesterday’s effort? I’m sorry to
report that I could not. The clock worsted me by a clear two seconds. Not a
huge amount, admittedly, but an obvious indication that my physical decline
It occurred to me that maybe I ought to call the doctor’s surgery immediately
to inform them of my imminent demise. I wasn’t sure they’d be particularly interested,
but I figured at the very least that I ought to cancel my flu jab appointment.
I could also update them on a new, rather irritating, symptom that had appeared
over the preceding few days.
Twitching. Nope, not some strange desire to sit in a field hoping to catch
a glimpse of a stray pigeon, though that would have been bad enough, but rather
muscles that twitched. A lot. In fact, rather as if a family of hyperactive
moles had taken up residence in my limbs. This was not good for my already frazzled
state of mind, since it was turning out to be rather difficult to sleep with
Moley and his pals skipping the light fantastick in my calves every night.
In normal circumstances, new symptoms are the lifeblood of a hypochondriac’s
obsession. There are, after all, few pleasures in life to match the sweet terror
of flicking through Gray’s Anatomy to determine whether the pain you’ve
just noticed in your knee is a sign that a vital organ is about to give up the
ghost. However, on this occasion, I was not overly worried. It was just muscle
twitching, which compared to pancreatic cancer surely could not be too serious.
So why not Google it? At least that way I could present my doctor with the bundle
of research that he always so appreciates when I want him to confirm a particular
Google unfortunately did not share my optimism about muscle twitching. Admittedly,
there was mention of anxiety, caffeine and too much exercise – none of which
I took to be particularly life-threatening; and I was fairly certain that something
called benign fasciculation syndrome was going to be...well, benign. But none
of this compensated for the horror of seeing page after page pop up on motor
neuron disease, or ALS as I soon learnt it is called in North America. This
really was not the best news. It was unfortunate enough to be suffering from
one terminal illness, but to be suffering from two, especially when the second
one involves a relentless decline into total paralysis, seemed really to be
taking the biscuit.
I’d like to say that I contemplated my fate with equanimity - that I cut
a rather noble figure as I calmly reminded loved ones of Epicurus’s maxim that
‘Death is nothing to us’. But the truth is my reaction to this new development
was more Woody Allen than Epicurus. I became morbidly obsessed with the twitching
of my muscles. I would think nothing of spending whole afternoons staring in
horrified fascination at the subcutaneous bubbling with which my calf muscles
in particular seemed determined to torment me; and the merest suspicion that
a previously twitch-free zone had decided to join in with the fun would be enough
to provoke copious wailing and desperate entreaties for medical intervention.
I am pleased to report, though, that I retained a semblance of the scientific
spirit in the series of strength tests I devised to determine just how quickly
I was growing weaker. These included: standing on one leg (personal record -
5 minutes 32 seconds); standing on tiptoes on one leg (1 min 15 seconds); standing
on tiptoes on one leg in the dark holding a cup of tea (4 seconds); hopping
upstairs carrying a large cat (23 stairs). It is true that these tests did not
show any dramatic decline in my physical prowess – in fact, if anything I got
better at them as time went on – but I was not reassured. No doubt I had a variant
of motor neuron disease that would taunt me with the possibility of remission,
or even a cure, only to accelerate wildly the moment I began to think that just
perhaps I’d be okay.
Obviously, suffering from two terminal illnesses – though, oddly enough,
by this stage I wasn’t spending much time thinking about the pancreatic cancer
– it was necessary to inform family and friends that I wasn’t going to be around
for much longer. It was with a heavy heart, then, that I broke the news to my
parents that their beloved son was unlikely to see out the year. It has to be
said that their reaction to this bombshell was somewhat underwhelming. My father
barely glanced up from the Daily Telegraph, and my mother muttered something
about remembering to cancel the television license. Clearly they hadn’t understood
what I was telling them. So I explained about my pancreas, and about the twitching,
and how all this was terribly bad.
‘Oh yes, that twitching, your father has that, and he’s still alive, more
or less,’ said my mother.
This was unexpected news.
‘Show him your calf muscles, dear!’
My father knows better than to ignore a direct command from my mother, so
he obliged by rolling up his trousers. It took a little while for me to pluck
up the courage to look at his unadorned lower legs, but when I did, I was stunned
to see that his calf muscles twitched every bit as wildly as my own.
This was a staggering revelation. It just seemed impossible – such a coincidence!
I gave him what I hoped was a look of immense compassion, and then broke the
news that he too was suffering from motor neuron disease.
‘Oh well,’ said my mother, ‘could be worse, he could have pancreatic cancer
Please send any correspondence about this article to jeremy[dot]stangroom[at]gmail[dot]com.
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