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The rise of the cyberchondriac

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Published Oct 20, 2013

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London - Three o’clock in the morning, and I’m on the internet, Googling madly, trying to explain the pain in my left side.

Then I find it. Abdominal pain (big tick), diarrhoea (sometimes), fatigue (I’m tired right now). It’s Crohn’s disease. I’ve got Crohn’s disease.

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But what’s this? Crohn’s Disease complications?

I click the link. One of the complications is a stomach ulcer. Indigestion (tick), heartburn (tick), loss of appetite (I only had half a chicken fajita for tea – tick). I keep clicking. It looks like the Crohn’s is the least of my worries.

Ten minutes later I’ve shaken my wife awake: “I’m going to hospital.”

“Oh love,” she says. “Remember the time you thought you had MS.”

“It’s a perforated stomach ulcer. It can lead to septic shock.”

“And the renal failure.”

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“Hey, it turned out I had a semi-blocked urethral tract!”

“That the doctor said was perfectly normal in a man your age.”

“I’m going in.”

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OK, I admit it, I’m the world’s worst hypochondriac. For me a sneeze is never a sneeze, but the drum-roll of death. I can turn a hiccup into West Nile Virus within four mouse clicks.

During the BSE crisis, I was so sure I had CJD, I all but demanded a brain biopsy. A bad cough convinced me I had the H5N1 bird flu virus. And I even had an MRI scan for a suspected brain tumour after I suffered a series of bad headaches that it turned out were the result of screen glare at work.

I’ve had a diabetes false alarm after an optician noticed “bits” in my eye, and I thought I had polycythemia, a red blood cell abnormality, after reading a biography of fellow sufferer William Shakespeare.

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And others: lung cancer and Japanese encephalitis, a viral brain infection spread through mosquito bites in South Asia (despite the fact that I’ve never been to Japan).

There have been rectal probes for prostate cancer. And, yes, I once saw the doctor about multiple sclerosis after presenting with a classic symptom (tingling skin), which I later realised was caused by chafing from an over-tight bum-bag.

Most embarrassingly, there was the lump on my left testicle that the doctor told me I’d actually caused myself by continually rolling this testicle between my finger and thumb checking it for lumps.

And I’ve had endoscopies for bowel cancer, biopsies for throat cancer. Not to mention a needless kidney operation when my urine flow slowed down to a mysterious trickle.

This time, I wait an hour-and-a-half at the hospital to see a doctor, who sits me on a gurney. He half pulls a curtain round my cubicle.

After I tell him my symptoms, he asks whether I’m worried about anything specific. I now know this is doctor code for: Have you been Googling your illness?

A decade ago, according to a study, GPs believed 15 percent of their patients self-diagnosed before a consultation. Now 44 percent of patients admit doing this. And that’s probably an underestimate.

I reveal my specific concern – that my Crohn’s (I’m confidently calling it this now) has progressed to a stomach ulcer, probably duodenal. From here, complications have developed. I think the ulcer’s perforated. My high blood pressure suggests sepsis. It can result in peritonitis and multiple organ failure.

I spout more from NetDoctor, webMD.com and everydayhealth.com and some of my other favourite websites.

On the examination table, I lift my shirt up and he prods my stomach. I point to where I think the “matter” is. His hands find the lump like a hard-boiled egg that I’m assuming is the ulcer. My stomach gurgles like an aqualung.

He presses down and, as he reaches a pocket of trapped wind, I pass it... downwards, and feel immediate relief. The stomach ache lifts. “Oh,” I say, sitting up. “That feels a bit better.”

The doctor snaps off his gloves. I follow him to reception, where he advises I see my GP if I’m still concerned. He hands me some peppermint tablets. “Try to stay off Google,” he warns.

I was 27 and my mom 57 when, after one family Sunday lunch, she lay on the kitchen floor and we took it in turns to feel a lump she’d found in her stomach.

I remember us laughing because it was like playing splat the rat. You pushed the lump down, it disappeared and came back up somewhere else. Back then, I didn’t really know anyone who had died.

A week on, a biopsy revealed cancer and, two years later, my mom died in hospital with her family surrounding her, still believing right up until she slipped into a coma, she’d get better.

A few days after Mom’s death I woke, unable to breathe. I called out my GP at 3am. It was a panic attack. I thought it was a stroke.

And that’s how the hypochondria began. For years after this, all I had to do was read about a medical condition and within hours I had it. While I knew I was being a hypochondriac, there was nothing I could do to stop it.

Despite the fact that each conviction I was dying proved to be unfounded, every new time it was the same.

Then slowly, just as I was beginning to accept my wife’s contention that my mom had just been unlucky, my dad developed pancreatic cancer in 2007. Given eight weeks to live, he survived for six.

Again, I watched him die, knowing that an earlier detection would have meant he’d still be alive. He was in his sixties, had never taken a day off work sick and hadn’t consumed so much as a headache tablet in his entire life. It opened up another three years of me bothering the doctor.

The day after my visit to hospital, my GP rubs his eyes tiredly when I go through my symptoms. He tells me there are a number of avenues open to us. Firstly, he can arrange an ultrasound of my bowel.

“Then secondly,” he pauses. “We can try psychiatry.”

Psychiatry?

He believes in being honest. If there’s anything more seriously wrong than a little irritable bowel caused by stress, he’d be astounded.

I say I’m not stressed. He fires questions at me. How’s work? Home all right? What about your wife? The kids? Mom and Dad okay?

I tell him about my dad. It’s like watching a slip catcher diving for a ball. He seizes on this. “You’d have to be a remarkably composed man not to let that affect you,” he says.

At home, I don’t mention psychiatry when my wife asks how it’s gone. I tell her I need an ultrasound. That he “sounded concerned about my bowel”.

I have the procedure at a hospital. The technician’s a perky woman in her thirties. “We’re looking at all your internal organs – spleen, liver, kidneys, lungs. Can you take a deep breath?”

She runs the probe over my gelled stomach and I watch her expression as she looks at the monitor.

“And can you turn to your side? Your kidneys next. Big breath.”

I concentrate on a stain on the ceiling to block negative thoughts. The procedure lasts 15 minutes. She gives me a hand towel.

“There are no lumps or bumps. I’ll send the results to your GP – he may want to do further analysis.”

And I find myself saying: “Both my mom and dad had one of these and...” My voice catches.

“The doctor will be in touch,” she says.

Over the next few days, the colours seem brighter. I’m tempted to write tearful letters to loved ones. Every moment with the children becomes poignant, although my wife is dismissive: “When they tell you there’s nothing wrong, will you apologise? And you can still take the bins out.”

Finally, the day arrives and I’m to telephone the GP’s surgery for my results. “Mr Hatch,” says the receptionist. I’m staring at a picture of my mom on her wedding day on our mantelpiece. “I’m putting you through now.” The receptionist’s voice is soft. Is she being sympathetic? Does she know?

My eyes prick. How sad for my wife. For the kids. I picture my wife holding my photo on this mantelpiece, talking to it (“Had another bad day, my love”), then welling up when she takes out the bins (“Why did I shout at him over the bins?”).

“Hello, Mr Hatch,” says the doctor. I can barely reply I’m so petrified.

“Well,” he says, and my life shrinks to the size of the receiver I have pressed to my ear: “It’s good news. Everything’s perfectly... “

And my head’s swooning. I can’t say thank you. My tongue seems too fat. I put the phone down, punch the air and shout: “Yes!”

That was a few years ago now. My hypochondria’s now in remission for two main reasons. Firstly, during that last scare I was referred to a dietitian.

During the consultation, I was required to indicate which kind of poo on a stool chart had a consistency and colour which most closely matched my own.

Having shared this gross intimacy, I found it hard going back to discuss my diet or anything else.

Secondly, I was diagnosed with an actual disease. Diverticulitis – when the bowel forms little pouches and one becomes inflamed. Fairly common, usually not serious.

But what was odd about finding something wrong with me was that somehow it stopped me looking for anything else.

I laugh about it now. My wife can tease me. Until, that is, the next one.

For as Spike Milligan’s epitaph (“I told you I was ill”) attests: all of us hypochondriacs are proved right in the end. – Daily Mail

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