What health anxiety feels like

It probably started when I was at University. The constant sore throats, to my mind, not the predictable effect of immersion in germ-ridden studentdom, but throat cancer. My GP laughed. Even my dentist laughed. Throat cancer, said the GP, was something old men like him got.

Fast forward 15 years. Another doctor’s consulting room, another doctor. ‘That mole’, he said, ‘was cancerous’. No preamble. No beating about the bush. Malignant Melanoma, the rarest and deadliest form of the now-common cancer. So it can happen and did happen to people like me, at 35 years old. Surgery followed, further biopsies, five years of follow-up and then I was released.

But in those five years my natural tendency to anxiety, to assuming the worst, had started to metamorphose into something monstrous. Is that tiny lump just a scratch from sloe-picking? Does that lymph node feel like a pea or a paracetamol? Tablet or capsule? The ones with codeine or without? Lymph nodes, if you’ve managed to swerve them so far, are little reservoirs that filter out germs, malignancies, but they also provide a handy highway for some cancers to spread.

‘It’s probably post-operative scarring’, said the GP. ‘I can’t feel the difference’, said the specialist, ‘but let’s check again in six weeks to be sure’. Eventually, I couldn’t even touch my own lymph nodes, even though I was supposed to self-check. Today, I’m unable to self-examine my breasts, even with (or perhaps because of) a familial risk.

On one of my skin cancer follow-up visits, I’d talked about my anxiety. The specialist, a kind doctor, told me: ‘It’s worth speaking to your GP about this. Because you’re coming up to the age when things are going to start going wrong, and you’re going to need to deal with that’.

He was right. Sometimes I call my 40s my Non-Stop Shit Tsunami. Today, two months shy of my 50th birthday, I feared this devil dispensed decade had been saving its cruelest blow until last.

One of the decade’s biggest battles is particularly relevant here. Like so many daughters, sons, partners, loved ones, I nursed my Mum through cancer three times in four years. Nothing prepares you for it, and I’m still not ready to write about it here. I miss her every day.

But all this time the health anxiety monster has been growing inside me, uncontrollable as a tumour, feasting not on oestrogen or HER2 but on a cocktail of genetic disposition, external trauma and life experience.

So when I get a second urgent cancer referral in six months I’m distraught, but unwilling to bother my long suffering friends.

This time the red flags were visceral: a large blood clot sliding down the bath, a second blooming on my bath towel. When there should no longer be blood. ’There’s the blood clot’, I said to myself, and realised I’d been waiting for it, such is my presumption of doom and oblivion. I’d had mystery abdominal pains for some time. But I scarcely trust my own mind any longer, such is its power to lurch to whatever scenario it chooses. So I leave the bloodstained towel where it is for a few days,  ‘reassuring’ myself that it really happened, that I was right to make a doctor’s appointment.

At the GP surgery, every patient leaflet around the waiting room screams ‘Cancer’ at me. I force myself to look at the floor.

48 hours later I’m due at the hospital and the terror, the bleakness, is overwhelming. I post a plea to Facebook: ‘I might need some help today’. I drive myself to the hospital, passing a  funeral directors and one of those ‘Private Ambulances’, just as we’d tailed a hearse to one of my Mum’s final consultations. Everybody saw it. Nobody said it. I felt my Mum see it in the passenger seat beside me. This time around, I tell myself to get a grip. It’s my mind misbehaving, projecting my internal state. I’ve just driven past a funeral directors. Of course there’s a private ambulance heading that way. There’s no connection to me.

To get to gynae outpatients at my local hospital, I have to walk past three other re-traumatising departments. Accident and Emergency and Chemotherapy/Oncology, where I spent some of the darkest hours of 2016-20. I pull my coat right up over my head to try not to see any of it, but I still feel faint.

Then Ladywell Department. A name as coy as a 1950s housewife. No blood or guts or spit or pain or screaming here. Crisply pressed pinafores, empire line dresses, probably the scent of violets. Nice and sanitary. Not Big Boy Man Health stuff. No barely anaesthetised evolutionary surgery happening here.

But lady is not well, or lady would not be here. But they’re going to make her walk through lots of bonnie babies and glowing expectant mums anyway, just to make sure she’s super-aware of the depth of shit and despair she’s in herself.

The gallant but overstretched bank receptionist can’t find my name on any of the lists. I try to communicate through my facemask, the perspex barrier and his facemask that there was no letter, that it’s an urgent telephone referral. I want to flee from the department in tears. I stare at the floor because it’s the least frightening thing in the room.

By the time I’m in the consulting room I can hardly speak. I answer the consultant’s questions and they direct me to the ultrasound bed. With diagnostic information imminent, I can’t contain my distress any longer. ‘I want to die.’ I blurt out. ‘If I’ve got cancer, I want to die now. I would rather die now’.

It’s a mess. I’m a mess. Realising that there’s a whole other problem here in addition to the possible cancer, they are concerned, kind and respectful. I get through it with both arms covering my face and by blocking my ears to the bleeps and comments between consultant and nurse.

Afterwards, the consultant says things look normal. He can’t see any reason for the bleed. It might have been hormonal. He shrugs and refers to the fact I’m only 49.

I don’t stop shaking for an hour. The nurse asks me if I have support for my mental health and it’s only then that I realise how very alarmed they were. She takes me into a ward and chats with me, arranges for someone to bring me a cup of tea. I’m overwhelmingly relieved and grateful. And I feel foolish, embarrassed and ashamed.

I know that this will happen again, and that one of those times I might have cancer. Tragically, there’s a lot of it about. Today I’ve been lucky. Lucky too, to have friends who look out for me. I’m also exhausted, drained, disorientated and I’ve no idea what time of day it is.

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