Diagnosis: Scared Witless

When it comes to my health, “reason” takes a hike.

In July, I had a CT-scan because I’d been experiencing some physical “manifestations” that were concerning to me. I actually went to the ER. Thankfully, other than dehydration, I was fine.

I’m writing this now, because, in the five months since, the physical manifestations of whatever the hell is wrong with me, have returned with a vengeance. This may sound strange, but I’d love to believe that their “all in my head.” And maybe they are. If so, I’m crazier than I thought.

But, I’ll take it. I’ll take the mental over the physical any day of the week. That’s me, though.

It must be said that, as a rule, I wouldn’t be able to share this openly, but, from what I’ve experienced thus far, this is one hell of a community.

There are many of you, I feel certain, that experience the same fear that I do when it comes to medical tests and procedures. Although I was always lax about yearly physicals, having breast cancer nearly five years ago only exacerbated my paranoia. Both of my parents dying from Stage 4 lung cancer added even more fuel to the fire. I can’t help but wonder and worry if my genes will turn against me. Again. If they’ll induct me into a club I want no part of.

As I write this, tentatively, for about the hundredth time today, I run my fingertips over the lymph nodes under my arms and around my breasts. They are tender to the touch. Sore. Barely perceptible, fluid-filled nubbins of tissue that hold secrets all their own. Secrets of which I want no part.

There is also a persistent, wrenching pain in my lower back. Tightness at the right side of my abdomen, which is not pain, exactly, but an unwelcome presence, nonetheless.

All of these migratory aches and pains that, together or separately, keep me in a constant state of high alert, do not have the effect that they would on a more rational, less neurotic individual — which is to call a doctor and check things the hell out.

When it comes to all things medical, I take after my mother. If something was bothering her physically, she’d have to be cajoled and begged and bullied to see a doctor. And still, she would not. Until the morning when she had an “episode” in bed and was unresponsive as my frantic father tried to rouse her. That day, she had no choice but to seek medical intervention.

My father was the polar opposite. At the slightest twinge or cramp, he’d adapt a “Why the f*ck fool around?” attitude and, recollecting this, I wish I was more like him.

When my parents fought, which was frequent and frequently vicious, my mother would call my father a “hypochondriac” and make fun of his constant visits to the doctor. Just one more arrow in a bulging quiver of them. Tragically, all my father’s visits to the doctor couldn’t save him from the lung cancer that claimed his life — and my mother’s. The ultimate kick in the ass. By the way, that morning…the one where my mother couldn’t be roused…a hospital stay and lab tests detected pneumonia, and then the cancer, soon after.

My father “checked things out.” My mother did not. And they died in the same hospice room, two weeks apart.

That’s why this time of year, on the cusp of Thanksgiving, is particularly difficult for me. My parents received their diagnosis right before “turkey day” and mine followed less than two months later: Very early-onset breast cancer. Lumpectomy. Radiation. Five years on an estrogen-reducing drug. Done.

I was blessed. My parents were not. As I’ve stated in a previous story, they passed nine months later within two weeks of one another. My father had stopped talking at that point. Instead, he had this vacant stare as if he was looking into the abyss and perhaps he was. I wish to hell I could forget that look. It’s incinerated in my brain.

Actually, for me, “done” may not be the best choice of words because I have been forever changed, as everyone who has survived cancer or a similar disease can understand. Every ache and pain and swollen gland that pops up is cause for alarm. Every Google search or WebMD read and the C-word appears, neon bright and impossible to ignore.

Today, the weather is dark and gloomy. It suits my mood. All these aches and pains I’ve been experiencing, coupled with my anxiety have zombie-fied me, if that makes any sense. And the stress of worrying about it, is only making me feel worse. I know you understand.

The cycle is both vicious and elemental: The more we worry, the sicker we feel.

I avoid getting “check out” because of fear. I know that, once I go, and explain my various issues, there will be the possibility of tests and more tests and after, there will be nowhere to hide. Oddly, and this is where shit gets really crazy, I have no problem going to see my oncologist for my six-month check-ins. He’s a doctor who really does get it and I love him for his empathy and upbeat attitude. All his patients do.

My husband has his own health concerns so I haven’t been really honest about my own, as he has enough to deal with. So, I worry about him and myself. That’s a lot of worry. It makes my stomach clench and my muscles ache.

Yes. I’m neurotic. Go ahead and think it. It’s okay.

I wonder how many people are like me: Otherwise rational beings who would rather sit and suffer as opposed to finding out “what’s going on.” There’s a name for this avoidance, this fear of doctors: Iatrophobia, also referred to as White Coat Syndrome. And, according to U.S. News, it affects approximately three percent of the population.

“The biggest fear for many patients is fear of the unknown,” says Andrew Rosen, director of The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Delray Beach Florida. Well, hell yeah, Andrew. He adds, “It’s the fear of pain, bad news, cancer, the hospital. It’s a cascade in which a patient could go from A to Z in two seconds.”

So how do we handle this disorder? There is a plethora of information to be found, online. Telling your doctor about your fears is one of them. Be open. I’ve not done this so I can’t attest to its efficacy but it’s worth a shot. Also, if your blood pressure tends to spike in your doctor’s office, like mine does, be sure to ask them to take it, again. And again, if necessary.

I’m talking a good game here, aren’t I? Offering up advice to whoever else is out there with the same irrational phobia as I have. Meanwhile, I sit here, sucking down countless cups of green tea with apple cider vinegar, the New Age cure-all. Admittedly, this brew feels damned good going down. If nothing else, it’s comforting.

I ask myself: How bad off could I be? I eat right, work out daily, keep my weight down. Certainly, all this has to count for something! Yes, I do drink alcohol, but far less than I used to.

Another thing that makes me shun the doctor: The glum, austere waiting rooms. Grim. Plain. A television bleating either a horrible game show or the national news. (Always bad.) Factor in the stack of dog-eared health-related magazines from 1982, with enticing titles like Treating Cancer Today! Apparently, people steal the better stuff, like People or Good Housekeeping or Time Magazine. I, myself, have never stolen a magazine, although, in a weak moment, I have ripped out a recipe, or two. Payback for getting my cowardly ass to the doctor, I guess.

Obviously, if scaredy-cats like myself want to stick around for a while, we need to get a handle on our fears, but how?

I’m curious about Cognitive Behavior Therapy. Most assuredly, I need some kind of therapy. According to Psychology Today, CBT is a form of psychotherapy that treats problems and boosts happiness by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. Specifically, a Cognitive Behavioral therapist will seek to shift a person’s reaction to being in a doctor’s office with a medical staff. He or she will suggest incorporating coping mechanisms like reaching out to loved ones for support, bringing a trusted friend or family member along, for example. Or, taking oneself out for a treat after a particularly difficult appointment.

I don’t know. Sounds like bunk to me, but who am I to say? And I already get support from loved ones. The fear hangs on, nonetheless.

Hypnotherapy is another option for people like myself, as is medication for treating depression and anxiety. Especially key, though, is finding a doctor who understands this particular phobia and will take the time to explain any needed procedures and/or tests.

That’s the tough part: Finding a doctor who “gets it.” They’re not all like my onc.

Update: I finally put on my Big Girl Pants and saw the doc. He ordered an x-ray of my abdomen. The results showed a possible enlargement of my spleen and a couple of other “issues.” The radiologist suggested that I have a CT scan with oral and IV imaging.

What this has done to my psyche I can’t adequately describe. I don’t understand. I had a scan five months ago and everything was fine. But that said, I realize that recurring stomach and back pain are not fine. There are sharp, little pinpoints of discomfort throughout my body that remind me of fireflies on a summer night. Flickering. Burning bright, and then, moving on.

My husband, understandably, loses patience with me because, as he says, even when I go to the doctor, I don’t go to the doctor, meaning that I rarely want to follow through with additional testing, etc.

Compounding my fear is the contempt that accompanies it. I hate this part of myself. This weakness. For someone who is normally so fearless in so many ways, this is a flaw of the highest order. I must get this under control. And I will. I tell myself this as I stare at the phone number for the Imaging department at the hospital.

As I try to suck up the courage to schedule the damned test, I get a call from my sister, who I adore. My husband has texted her, knowing that she will do her best to talk me off the ledge. And she gives it her all. As I begin to blubber like an infant, she tells me to think about our parents, and how hard they tried to live. For us. She reminds me of everything they went through — the chemo, the surgeries, the painful “procedures” — for what everyone knew would ultimately be a losing battle.

Yep. Our folks were tough as nails. They displayed a level of courage that blew me away. Certainly, I share at least a modicum of that bravery. Somewhere. Down deep.

And then my sister pulls out the big one: She tells me that she is going to call and make the appointment for me if I don’t do it myself. RIGHT NOW. She makes me promise to schedule the scan and call her right back. And I actually do it. Quickly. Without thinking about it.

Done. I’m going tomorrow. I’ll drink the two bottles of dye I have to pick up first, lie on the table, watch as the IV with even more dye is inserted in my arm, and then, as I’m lit up like a Christmas tree, we’ll see.

I wish you all a happy, healthy Thanksgiving.


Sherry McGuinn
Sherry McGuinn
Sherry McGuinn is a long-time, Chicago area, advertising/marketing writer, blogger and, for the last fifteen years, screenwriter. A big-time dreamer and proud of it, Sherry has had two short films produced, one in L.A., the other in New York. Both won several awards and screened at festivals but she is still "fighting the good fight," in order to become a full-time, working screenwriter. A passionate straight-shooter who never rests on her laurels, Sherry writes about damn near everything because how do you encapsulate…life? Unflinching in her determination to “just tell the truth,” Sherry strives to educate, engage and inspire others to follow their dreams. A lifelong animal lover and advocate, Sherry resides in a Chicago suburb with her husband and their three fabulous felines.

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  1. First, Sherry, I want you to know you are not alone. Your honest sharing, vulnerability, wit, fears had me remember the time period that I tuned into the news-I irrationally feared that my body had contracted HIV, e-Coli, E-bola, cancer of all types, and many other terrifying illnesses featured in news stories. Every twinge in my body sent me spiraling down a cheese hole called-I’m going to die from (fill in the blank). My mother was a combo pack of your parents-she felt every twinge-convinced herself that her body had every imaginable disease and had the fear of doctors that you describe-and when she would finally go-which only happened a handful of years ago-she’d doubt, resist every bit of their advice/recommendations then reach for a handful of JollyRanchers from the green glass candy jar-eating them like some people chain smoke.

    I’ve since learned that my mind needed some support as I actually walked around with persistent traumatic stress and PTSD-I did seek out many different therapies including STR, and cranio-sacrel therapy as well as talk therapy, read tons of inspirational/self-help/spiritual books, and began to disentangle my mom’s paranoia that had wrapped itself around my empath self. I began to release, clear, purge. I no longer fear death by horrible disease…and I may die of a horrible disease. I DK. My intense fears of this have softened immensely as I shifted my life energy to focus on what I’m passionate about, what actually feels really good for me, and rather than walking barefoot over Legos I gently continue to shift to kindness towards myself, gentle practices rather than muscling through life or enduring intense discomfort-mental, emotional, or physical-I will reach out for tune-ups-probably for the rest of my life. I really know I’m not alone. Really. And if I do happen to lose my mind to dementia or my body to some horrific disease, I trust many people will stand by my side, hold my hand, love me, stay connected, not flinch or scurry away. I imagine I would be grateful right to the end as I’ve been practicing feeling grateful for a long time now…for all the good and hard.

    And If I could wave my feng shui wand, I would inspire staff at doctors’ offices to create soothing welcome in the physical space so people (who are already scared/feeling tender-vulnerable) could be “wrapped” in a physical environment that felt like a cuddly blanket of kindness, compassion, softness, support….like their favorite place in nature or welcoming living room. I felt discouraged when my kids orthodontist placed a large screen TV in the waiting blaring Breaking News -often all horrific. My vision for our world continues to hold many rich opportunities to gently guide, offer another pathway.

    Thank you for sharing so honestly, with such passion. I, obviously, saw myself inside your honest, human experiences. May you continue to be brave. You matter. Your voice and passion matter. Your being well-body, heart, mind-or as healthy as you can be at any moment matters. Many hugs to you!!! Happy Thanksgiving to you! Keep us posted!!

  2. Sherry, you are brave for writing this piece and sharing your fears. I commend you and admire you for this because it isn’t easy. Also, I get it. For years I’ve struggled with these similar fears. You aren’t crazy, and we all have something that challenges us to our core.
    I’ve found that finding the right medical team that you are comfortable with helps immensely. I have high blood pressure, as I think I mentioned in another post of yours. But, I am fortunate to have a primary care team who understands me and my fear. My BP is the best it’s been in a long time due in part to medication and a lifestyle change. Oh, and a lot of deep breathing exercised. They know my history, and I am open about it each time I sit down in the exam room and prepare for the cuff.
    My anxiety about going gets better each time, and slowly, I make progress. Like you, this time of year is a big trigger, and I can finally trace it back to 2007 when my husband was going through his cancer treatment. My mom was very ill during this time also and ended up in a coma in the hospital right around Christmas time. We didn’t think she’d make it, but she did. Then, it seemed like in subsequent years; something always happened around the holidays. So, naturally, my angst of association would kick in.
    You’re not alone, Sherry. But you can do this just as much as I can. Trust me, I still have miles to go, but I am proud of the progress I’ve made.
    I wish you only the best, and I do hope you enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday.

    • Laura, so kind of you to take the time to write this. I’ve had a rather manic morning. Got up super early, cleaned out the spice cabinet and now I’m going to work. I’ll be going in a couple of hours for my test and I’ll be thinking about all of the wonderful people here, like yourself, who have been so supportive. I hope your husband is now healthy and cancer-free. I realize that I need to get a handle on my anxiety, whether it be through meditation, or some other form of therapy. Thank you so much for the kind words and I hope you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving, as well.

  3. A brutally honest look in the mirror Sherry. I have been fortunate that I haven’t lost anyone close to cancer, but I imagine having lost both parents is what drives your anxiety… which often times feels worse than the actual diagnosis. Possibly you are having panic attacks, and that can only release stress hormones which lower your immune system. This, unlike anything Stephen King could ever dream up, feels like the human body trying to destroy itself. Our minds are a beautiful gift, but they also work overtime to undermine our sense of peace. Worse is the fact that you are a writer, so you are constantly searching for details and reason… every little nuance to the madness. I know this because I also overthink and analyze everything! Wish I could wave a magic wand for you and make things better, reality is such a bitch. All I can say is that you need to find ways to diffuse, to step away from the things that are driving the anxiety. Turn off the computer, disconnect and meditate. Find a quiet place and get in touch with your soul… Will be praying for you dear friend…

    • I will try to take your advice, my friend because you nailed. I don’t know to decompress. Never have. The notion of feeling “relaxed and at peace” is foreign to me. As you said, certainly, this is having an adverse affect on my immune system. I will have to start looking for someone to help me with this. A huge, huge hug to you.

  4. Sherry, So well written.. it’s like I was inside of you and knowing what you experience….as if it were. Mine. Please don’t stress…breathe….you are not alone..and so much stronger The writing helps. It’s cathartic. I’m so glad you did. We are here and support you! Prayers???❤️❤️❤️ Paula

    • Oh, Paula…thank you. If writing this helps others know that they’re not alone, then I’m glad I did. Everyone here has been so great. It just blows me away.

    • It is amazing isn’t it. Blows my mind up too! I’m glad that you said this because I actually agree to. Bless you my lovely! We are your friends and armour for you

  5. Hi there, Sherry! There is so much soothing and empathetic advice from everyone here. I just love that. Your honest sharing helps others move forward in their own stories which are wrought with fear and pain – and also hope. You put on your big girl pants and you did deal with your situation and that is what counts. Cheers to you. Just adoring getting to know you. A huge hug to you, loving and healing thoughts, and I feel you are such a survivor.

  6. Sherry – I prayed for you as I read your story because, as a pastor, I have seen people with your fears. I recently visited a church member whose husband was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer that has already spread to his liver. She told me not to tell him that the doctors only feel he has a year to live so that he would not give up the fight. My heart broke for them. My prayer was to ask for the miracle but most importantly, that he would sense God’s love around him at all times. That is my prayer for you – and for the courage to face each test and to accept whatever the news is with courage.

    When I got home, I told my wife to never hold back this kind of information. I told her that I could do so much to prepare our finances to make her life easier and I could help her and our daughters to prepare for my passing so that they would be able to deal with my parting with a sense of joy because I spent the time to show them my love at the end. Think about this – knowing the truth may be life changing and painful but knowing you took control so your family would be better prepared for your passing is empowering.

    I don’t judge – I understand – I care – I pray.

  7. Hey Sherry! I realize I shared a lot with you (perhaps too much!) in my response to your very thoughtful comment in reference to my ‘Toothpaste’ article. I’ve been ‘along for the ride’ through a few ailments my wife has experienced (triple bypass surgery….several stents….a few bouts of pneumonia…) but cannot say “I know how you feel” when it comes to cancer…..especially with the family history you’ve shared. I love your transparency! And I don’t know her but I love your sister! I’m so glad you have her (and your husband, of course) and that you followed through on her direct order! You are in my prayers. Please update when you have a chance.

  8. Great article, Sherry! Many people are like you in that they avoid doctor visits or tests. With me, I have this fear that every little twinge I feel or any lump I detect is cancer. If I see blood on the toilet tissue I think it is cancer. No way I could ever have a colonoscopy. Yes, I see all of my doctors regularly with no sign of anything wrong except for my seizures which they cannot find the cause of, my diabetes, depression, and anxiety but nothing (thank G-d) that is life-threatening. There has been nothing in any of my blood tests to indicate anything is wrong. Yet I worry something is not showing and nobody can convince me otherwise. My mother died of a stroke at the age of 90. She hated doctors and refused to go to them. My father had a history of heart trouble with some suspicion of color rectal cancer. My father worked as a medical librarian (he planned the whole library)for a terrible hospital here in Brooklyn by the name of Woodhull Hospital. One day as he was leaving for work and according to my mother he had this funny look on his face that he knew he would not be coming home ever again. In my estimation your fears, etc. make you quite normal. I hope everything turns out for the best for you. Take care and stay well.

    • Thank you, Joel. You do the same. Have the colonoscopy, my friend. If I did it, you can do it. Truly, the test itself is a breeze. The pain in the ass (sorry, couldn’t resist), is the solution you have to drink before the procedure, which they knock you out for, by the way. Take care.

    • You are most welcome, Sherry. I am an insomniac and even though I take pills to put to sleep I still get up several times per night to snack. That and the anxiety of the results (I have convinced myself I have Color Rectal Cancer) keep me far away. They call people like me chicken or worrywart.

    • My husband suffers from chronic insomnia. It is horrible! Please see a doctor if you haven’t, already. Thinking good thoughts for you.

    • I see a doctor who has prescribed Mitrazipine which works well in terms of helping me fall asleep. Staying asleep is another story. My very best to you Sherry.

    • I kind of follow your system too I think. When my time comes my mind is ready. I’ll take care if this vessel, and do what I can,,, but I’m also highly in tune with my body…if it can receive some help without making me sicker. I don’t know. I had an emergency appendectomy less than a year ago…the pain was unbearable for 2 nights before I called an ambulance…it was toxic…in the hospital for a week…..I could have died and swear I looked down at myself….but I’m here and it wasn’t my time…it’s amazing what medical science can do…ok. I’m done rambling but you know you make me think my friend! I’ll cherish you now! Take care! Paula

  9. Hey Sherry, boy, lots to comment on, but I guess I will just begin with “Hang in there”. I completely understand what you are experiencing. In 2001 I listened to my body in that I had pain on the left side of my body, just below my waist. It just didn’t feel right so after going to the doctor, (because I know my body) they discovered my kidney had a growth. Turned out to be cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma. They removed the kidney, spleen and female organs. Fast forward, I am still here today. God gave us doctors to trust in, and yes, it is wise to do the homework on them. Still, the biggest thing is to listen to your body and get things moving in the right direction. Would love to stay in touch to support what comes next. I will keep you in my prayers and just believe that it will be okay.

    • Oh my goodness, Lynn. I am so sorry you had to endure that, but happy that you are here to share your story. Obviously, you’re a fighter. Bravo to that. Thank you for your kind words and yes, I would love to stay in touch