I can't think of any other way to start this except to say that I have an almost debilitating fear of doctors. It's not just "doctors make me nervous." It's like when I have some kind of symptom, I seriously consider whether it would be worse to continue to suffer or go through the horror of visiting a medical professional.
Side note: Doctor fear is also the premise of the DVD Elmo Visits the Doctor. Elmo even sings a song about it: "As sick as Elmo feels/the doctor could be worse."
But the thing with Elmo is, he's afraid of getting a shot. I'm afraid of getting diagnosed with a terminal illness. And yes, I understand the irrationality of my thinking: it's not like the doctor is the one who gives you a terminal illness. You either have one or you don't. Going to a doctor neither increases nor decreases your chances of having a terminal illness. But if you don't go to a doctor, you might never have to face up to the possibility of a terminal illness.
Except, as soon as some random symptom starts, I'm pretty sure I have a terminal illness anyway. And I work myself into such a frenzy that the only cure is to go to a doctor and get the official clean bill of health. Seems simple and non-scary enough, right? Except, what about the IN-BETWEEN PART?! The part where I'm waiting for the test results? The part where the doctor gives you a list of every possible horrible thing you could have, and uses his professional CYA phrases/demeanor to make it clear that no, he is not going to give you a guarantee that it isn't cancer until the lab test shows it isn't. And then the doctor says, "We can't rule anything out until the bloodwork comes back." And I hear, "Shannon, you have cancer. Go home and get your affairs in order."
So then I worry while I wait for the results. And in modern medicine, there is so much waiting. First you wait for an available appointment, and then you wait in the waiting room and the exam room. Then there's a whole separate visit to a lab for the bloodwork, and you also wait there, and then you wait and wait and wait for the results. It's the waiting that's gonna kill me. (Elmo, incidentally, just got his diagnosis and prescription in a single office visit, then sang a song about how much better he felt. There was no waiting for Elmo.)
So, onto my specific medical situation, the one that prompted this post.
I first have to go back in time a little bit and explain my medical history. So, when I was 24, I got this random condition where my various lymph nodes got swollen and painful. Certain it was cancer, I Googled my symptoms (this was back in 2002, before I learned not to do that) and was pretty much convinced I had leukemia. And I went to the doctor, and what did he say? "It might be leukemia." Panic and tears and a blood test and 24 hours of paralyzing fear later, it turned out I did not have leukemia. But this incident set in motion a lifelong anxiety about medical conditions. In fact, I was so not convinced that the test ruled out leukemia (what if my results got mixed up with somebody elses? what if I just didn't have enough leukemia in my blood to show up on the results, but it's growing in my body right now?) that I went back to the doctor and told him I was still feeling horrible and could he please tell me one more time that I didn't have leukemia? (Yes, I paid another co-pay just to hear him repeat these words.) Eventually I ended up in therapy and on medication for anxiety, because in actuality I was feeling crappy because I was experiencing the physical manifestations of my panic.
Flash-forward to 2005, and my lymph nodes swelled up again. Even though it hadn't been cancer the last time it happened, I was convinced that it was cancer this time. When I finally worked up the nerve to go to the doctor, it was revealed that I had a mild UTI for which I had no symptoms, but that my super immune system was fighting anyway. (Of course, none of this was revealed until after a nerve-wracking three weeks of medical tests.)
So now it's the present-day, and ... you guessed it, swollen glands again. And this time I told myself that I had two options: (1) wait for it to go away on its own, or (2) go to a doctor and find out where the infection was and get antibiotics. Instead, I picked Secret Option #3: Spend days and days obsessing over it and stewing in my own panic until I reached Panic Level 10, and then panic about it some more. And the thing about medical symptoms is, if you panic about them, they increase in frequency and severity.
But the thought of going to the doctor, and the waiting, OMG the waiting, kept me from making an appointment. As an aside, I also didn't so much have a regular doctor. There was a guy I went to several times, and who my husband still goes to, but he is a bit too much of an alarmist for my taste. He was the one who made me go through three weeks of tests to diagnose a UTI, a time during which the term leukocyte was bandied about. (A leukocyte, it turns out, is just a white blood cell, but damn if it doesn't sound scary, and especially when you ask the nurse on the phone what it means and she says she doesn't know.) Oh and this same doctor put my husband in the hospital overnight for a series of tests that ended up revealing a minor sinus infection. Alarmist Doctor + Hypochondriac Shannon = Bad Combination.
So I had decided no, no doctors. But this morning I woke up at Threat Level Midnight, which is what I call it when my entire body is seized with panic. ("Threat Level Midnight" is the name of the screenplay that Michael Scott wrote on The Office, not that I watch that show anymore.) Such a level of panic could not continue, lest I want to die from anxiety.
So I looked up providers on my insurance plan's website. And my heart was palpitating just looking up providers. I picked a medical practice that I'd seen advertised, which was located next to my dentist, and which I'd heard good things about.
I waited until 9:00 to make the appointment. I was nervous calling. And thankfully the receptionist was nice, because a rude, impatient receptionist can do me in. It's especially scary when I haven't been to that doctor before and I feel like I'm not yet a member of their club or something. Thankfully these guys are new in town, so probably a lot of people are new. And they could see me within the hour!
I showed up and didn't even get my forms filled out before I was in the exam room with the nurse. As a nervous patient, I feel like my best option is to explain to the entire medical staff that I'm freaking out that I have cancer, and they should probably watch their language carefully. (The nervousness also usually explains the abnormal results when they take my blood pressure and pulse.)
So ... my appointment was at 10:00, and the doctor came in by 10:05. (With the other guy, I usually had to wait an additional 30 minutes after being called back to the little room.) He said he noticed right away that I breathe through my mouth and that my nose is a little stuffed up. I told him that I wasn't stuffed up, but when he pinched one nostril with his finger and told me to breathe through the other, my breathing did make kind of a stuffy noise. He said that in addition my tonsils were really big, and all that plus the swollen neck glands points to allergies. Of course he had to add the whole doctor CYA, "But I can't be sure it isn't cancer until the labs come back," which I heard as, "It's probably cancer."
But he prescribed two allergy medications and an antibiotic. Then I was getting my coat on and he said, "Wait, stay here." I figured I was going to have to wait in there for the lab order sheet, but then a woman came in with a needle and vials for my blood. Right there in the office! I had never experienced such convenience.
Except the blood-drawing lady had trouble finding a vein, which never happens to me. And then she poked me and she said she was sure she was in the vein, and nothing was coming out. I started to freak out. What does this mean?! Do I have no blood?! And she wasn't even saying reassuring things like, "This happens sometimes, don't be alarmed." She just left in silence and then a short (scary) time later, a nurse came in to draw the blood.
So ... here we are. I honestly feel better after taking the antibiotics and the allergy meds, which I'm thinking has to be the placebo effect, right? And I'm hoping, hoping, hoping that the lab results come back tomorrow so I don't have to wait out the weekend. And I'm hoping that when they do call, they try my cell if I'm not home, rather than the typical doctor "leave a scary voicemail Friday afternoon at 5" approach. And mostly I'm hoping that I don't have cancer.
I know there are people who take a very relaxed approach to doctors and diagnostic testing. These are the people who will say, "Yeah, why don't you just talk to a doctor about that?" and don't realize that for some of us those are words that induce a panic attack. These are people who can see doctors as their partners in health maintenance, rather than Troubleshooters and Bearers of Bad News.
I will say, though, that I'm happy I found a new doctor, for future health concerns. I do feel one step closer to finding a partner in health maintenance. My old doctor seemed to take the approach of (1) initial short visit where tests are ordered, (2) tests, (3) follow-up where more tests might be ordered, (4) more tests, (5) inability to find out test results for weeks, and finally (6) appointment where he tells you he didn't find anything terminal, so just go ahead and go on with your life even if you do feel crappy. I felt like that doctor's role was just to rule out something deadly and then ignore you.
Today's doctor really seemed like he cared about maintenance of long-term minor ailments, such as allergies. And I will be able to find out about my Vitamin D level, which has long been a concern for me. That doctor felt accessible, not like every other doctor I've ever had where I felt like I was just a cog in some giant medical conglomerate, with the automated phone answering machines, and the "we'll call you back within 48 hours," and the waiting and waiting and waiting. At least today's doctor seemed like he cared.
So, I'll keep you guys updated on the results. Until then, I cling to the doctor's words: "If you never had leukemia before, you probably don't have it now."