Lifestyle

I constantly fear that I have cancer – this is what it’s like to live with health anxiety


Health anxiety is characterised by obsessive and irrational worry (Picture: Siobhan Smith)

Ever since I can remember, I have been scared of dying.

The year was 1994. I was eight and visiting my granny, drinking milky tea and eating Custard Creams. Sifting through one of the weekly magazines that she used to have piled up in her sitting room, one particular story caught my attention.

It was about a young girl who had developed a rare brain tumour and died. The first sign had been that one of her eyes was starting to turn inwards. I can remember how I felt reading it to this day – blind, searing panic bubbled up inside of me.

For weeks after that, I obsessively stared at myself in the mirror, certain that one of my eyes was starting to turn and that I almost definitely had a deadly tumour growing somewhere behind my skull.

The girl had been 10. I convinced myself I had two years left.

Since then, I’ve spent countless days, months, years of my life, lying awake at night, consumed with the sinking feeling of certainty that this time is it – this is the time I’m dying.

The brain tumour is a regularly recurring worry from childhood. But it can be anything from Hashimoto’s Disease to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. More often than not, it’s cancer.

Then, along came the pandemic.

On top of my usual health worries, I now have the virus to contend with as well. Any time I go anywhere, I imagine I have become infected.

I hold my breath when I walk past people in the street and have a technique where I breathe out of my nostrils at the same time, hoping that this airstream will deflect any particles that might be making their way towards me. This is despite religiously wearing a mask, which I know sounds ridiculous.

I’m convinced that every sore head is a sure sign that I’ve contracted Covid-19 and any time I meet with a friend, I worry for a full 10 days afterwards that I may have been asymptomatic and passed it on to them unwittingly – despite having kept my distance and refused any offers of hugs, or even elbow taps.

Clearly, I’m not the only one. Health anxiety has ‘skyrocketed’ throughout the pandemic, according to a BBC study. The proliferation of the virus has increased the suffering of those who already had health anxiety, and it’s caused others to develop it.

However, on a personal level, what I didn’t expect was the feeling of being ‘normal’ that came with the onset of coronavirus – though I’d never want anyone else to suffer like this.

During bad episodes, I’ve been to A&E with things including chest pains and a suspected prolapse

Yes, I was worried, anxious, and exhausted with it all – but that was already my everyday experience. Suddenly, the whole world was united in fear of illness. Being anxious about our health became a huge part of our newfound pandemic lives.

My sister has developed an obsession with washing her hands, terrified that if she doesn’t clean them after touching things, she’ll get ill. Friends who I’ve never known to be worriers avoid going to the supermarket, in case they come into contact with potentially deadly germs.

Most of us are anxious – on a sliding scale of severity – about catching Covid-19.

But I know, as awful as that is, it’s logical, not health anxiety. The debilitating nature of this condition is so much more than worrying about picking up a virus or getting sick from germs.

It’s the constant obsession that something is already seriously wrong with you. It’s never believing anyone – including doctors and specialists – when they tell you that your tests have come back clear. It’s a vicious cycle where worries can manifest themselves into physical symptoms, and it can become hard to separate fact from fiction.

During bad episodes, I’ve been to A&E with things including chest pains and a suspected prolapse (don’t ask – the investigating doctor was flummoxed, as there was nothing to suggest this was happening). I’ve gone private to have scans done, convinced that spending hundreds of pounds will be the only way to save my life.

And I’ve been called into my doctor’s surgery to talk about the underlying causes of fixating on these illnesses.

I’d always loosely referred to myself as a hypochondriac, in a disparaging way. But my doctor recognised that the amount of problems I had on my list wasn’t normal and confirmed that I was suffering from health anxiety. He suggested that my brain was focusing on potential diseases as a way of channelling more generalised anxiety.

Thanks for that, brain.

Talking about it to a professional and recognising it as a real condition has helped me manage it, but I’ve accepted that it’s something I’ll always live with, to a degree.

Health anxiety is characterised by obsessive and irrational worry, often marked by imagination of physical symptoms. But, of course, sometimes the symptoms are genuine, and things are actually wrong.

In that situation, what can be difficult is accepting a diagnosis – I always assume the worst.

For example, I’ve been diagnosed with Geographic Tongue, which causes inflammation and pain of the tongue. But, it took two biopsies for me to believe it wasn’t cancer as I was convinced they’d missed something the first time round. Years later, I still worry it might be something more serious.

Living with the fear of illness every day is tiring – and, it’s been extra challenging through the pandemic

I also have Gilbert’s Syndrome (a liver condition that can cause jaundice like symptoms) but again, I was certain the raised levels of bilirubin in my blood were bound to signify something life threatening – namely, cirrhosis of the liver.

The list goes on.

And when I’m convinced that something might be wrong, I can’t switch off from that thought.

I have a constant awareness of any ‘heat spots’ of worry on my body. This is a physical sensation in areas that I’m concerned about. I can feel them all right now, from the mole on my right side to the unexplained lump on my toe. They’re in the back of mind at all times.

And ‘Doctor Google’ doesn’t help. A search for ‘Feeling tired all the time’ brings up about 888,000,000 results. Lots of them suggest that tiredness is a possible symptom of cancer.

But it’s also a symptom of staying up until 1am on a weeknight, binge-watching Netflix. The logical part of my brain knows this, the anxious part pushes that to the side.

Over the years, I’ve panicked friends and family with my absolute conviction that something is seriously wrong with me. Since getting my health anxiety diagnosis, I am better equipped to rationalise my worries – although they are still there.

Living with the fear of illness every day is tiring – and, it’s been extra challenging through the pandemic.

However, in an unexpected turn of events, worrying about being ill has become integrated into normal life, in a way that is almost stabilising, and even distracting.

Although, to be clear, I take no comfort in that at all. Feeling like this is not something I would wish upon anyone.

As cases of Covid-19 decrease, my fear about catching the virus lessens with it – although I must be careful that this doesn’t create space for the more serious health worries to creep back in again, as my brain looks for new things to focus on.

Finally, I do wonder whether our collective experience over the last year or so might lead to a more general understanding of what it’s like to live with health anxiety, going forward.


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Metro.co.uk MHAW Takeover

This year, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Metro.co.uk has invited eight well-known mental health advocates to take over our site.

With a brilliant team that includes Alex Beresford, Russell Kane, Frankie Bridge, Anton Ferdinand, Sam Thompson, Scarlett Moffatt, Katie Piper and Joe Tracini, each of our guest editors have worked closely with us to share their own stories, and also educate, support and engage with our readers.

If you need help or advice for any mental health matter, here are just some of the organisations that were vital in helping us put together our MHAW Takeover:

To contact any of the charities mentioned in the Metro.co.uk MHAW Takeover click here





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