May 22, 2009

It’s All In Your Head

psychiatrist-couch

Psychosomatic.  There I said the word.  Did you cringe?  I would think most young adult cancer survivors might.  Many of us had delayed diagnoses because our doctors thought we were hypochondriacs, too young for cancer, and it was all in our heads.

Take for example Mary Ann Harvard, who is the fantastic It Girl in my book.  Her docs told her that her fatigue and difficulties breathing were all in her head.  They even gave her a referral to a psychiatrist.  I bet they felt like big assholes when it was finally discovered that she had a tumor in her chest the size of a football.

But, over the past few years I have begun to explore the notion that some of  my fatigue and aches and pains are sometimes caused by stress and worry.  This seems like a Pandora’s box to open as an advocate who fights hard for our medical needs to be taken seriously, but here I go.

I don’t think that my fatigue and pains are always in my head.  But I do think that stress hormones can do a number on my body.  I have begun to notice my stress level and a correlation between how I feel physically.  At first I wanted to deny the connection because I felt it discounted my experience as a cancer survivor.  But it actually helps to notice when my stress is impacting my health and modify my behavior.  I don’t chalk up all of my pains and fatigue to stress, but I am training myself to recognize the difference between stress and a separate physiological illness response.

Does the word hypochondria make you cringe?  Were you ever accused of being a hypochondriac prior to your diagnosis when your symptoms were arising?  Do you ever notice a link between how your feel mentally and how you feel physically?  What do you do about it?

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Comment(s)

  1. Charissa Says:
    May 22nd, 2009 at 4:43 AM

    What a timely post, for me. I have been doing all of this reading about young adult cancer and stagnant survival rates, and having recently lost my husband been under an immense amount of stress. So of course I ignored my dizzy spells for nearly two weeks- until they started coming WAY more frequently. I work at a womens health care facility, so I ran it by a couple providers there, who had different ideas about what it could be, ranging from stress to an ear infection to a brain tumor.

    So yesterday I went to my PCP and had the run of tests and pokes and prods, and he basically said he couldnt find anything wrong with me. Next step is blood work, and if that doesnt tell him anything, he suggested a CT scan or other scans, if the dizziness hasnt gone away by then. I feel like Im in such a strange place, because I dont want to overreact but I also dont want to ignore something potentially serious. Does it worry me more because I just lost my husband to cancer, and Ive been swimming in books and research about the topic? I dont run to the doctor for every little thing, typically, but should I? Am I having bouts of dizziness because Im working too hard, or because Im under so much stress? Is it something real?

    Its a totally hard thing to balance, and to understand. How long do you push your doctor to find an answer when you just dont “feel right”?


  2. Robin Says:
    May 22nd, 2009 at 10:43 AM

    For me it tends to be the opposite problem; I accept pretty much everything as being everyday stuff. Each time I see my doctor they run through the list of questions: are you tired? are you gaining or losing weight? do you have trouble breathing? And I look at them, and in all seriousness go, “I’m a joint degree grad/law student… what do you think?” If I were showing any new symptoms, I honestly couldn’t tell you. Everyone I’m around tends to be tired, sluggish, moody, etc. So yeah, I never really know if i should be concerned.


  3. lisa-lurkey Says:
    May 22nd, 2009 at 6:46 PM

    Yup, they never really say “Its all in your head” so much any more, but thats what they mean when they tell you its caused by stress.

    If you have become sick because of too much stress, why should that ever mean “its all in your head”? That phrase really suggests that you are crazy (and lazy). But if your stress load is so bad that its making you physically sick, then two things should be obvious:
    1. there is something physically wrong, or your “head” wouldn’t be pushing you over the edge
    2. Being told you are crazy and lazy while failing to explore the real reason will absolutely make your stress load worse, effectively causing more harm. Which doctors aren’t supposed to do. Why don’t they understand the enormous effort it takes to even bring a problem to a doctor?

    As the recent swine flu epidemic is showing us, a culture that pushes people to the absolute limit of their reserves simply puts our entire society at risk. We need to be able to stay home and actually rest BEFORE we get terribly ill. Instead we have to drag our butts to the office no matter what, or if we work at home then we drag ourselves to our desks no matter what and add guilt to the formula when we just can’t deliver.


  4. Jen Says:
    May 23rd, 2009 at 2:51 PM

    Oh, yes and yes! Robin, I share your trouble–of course I always have a headache, I spend all day reading or on the computer…. Of course my joints hurt, my whole family has bad knees…. It’s nothing “abnormal.” Etc. Etc. But then when I was diagnosed with endometriosis, my doctors said “Why didn’t you tell anybody about this pain years ago?” and I said “I thought that’s what PMS felt like.”

    I have 2 things to say to this: 1) Who cares if doctors think you’re mentioning too many things or worrying too much? It’s their job to check it out. And 2) I am slowly learning to think not about the symptoms, but about what will make me feel better. Like, a day of doing nothing but sleeping and cooking and eating. Or, more walks. If simple life shifts don’t make me feel better, then it’s more than “just stress,” or as Lisa says, the stress has done something physical to the body.


  5. Genevieve Thul Says:
    May 23rd, 2009 at 10:33 PM

    Thank you for putting words to a fear that we all face. I’ve heard “it’s all in my head” WAY too many times to count. Thanks for giving us this blog for free – it is a great resource.

    Genevieve
    FVP Thyroid Cancer Patient
    Age 30
    Mom of 4, wife of 1 and grad student through it all

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