Taking a Detour: The Making of a Hypochondriac

Pukkelpop 2006 tent camp.

Image via Wikipedia

Day 1:

So I’m tooling along Cancer Road. Don’t want to be here, but at least I’m past the multicar pile-up of surgery, chemo and radiation, and I’m picking up speed. Hope the rest of my trip is event-less. Man, it’s hard to drive with your fingers crossed.

Switching lanes now and – oops – wait! How did I end up on this ramp? I’m not supposed to get off this highway for another year or so, when I get to the exit marked “Dramatically Decreased Chance of Recurrence.”

Wait — what’s that brown sign? Looks like the ones that point to scenic attractions. Maybe a welcome sign?

Well, maybe not.

Welcome to Camp Hypochondria

No pets allowed

Aw, rats.

Somebody warned me about this place. A guy on the Road ahead of me. He said he got stuck there, but I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about then.

So here I am now, parked in the middle of a bunch of tents.

Looks like one of those Occupy campsites that were recently closed down. Maybe I’ll stay here for awhile and see what’s going on. I’ve got a tent in the trunk.

Day 2:

Here I am, lying awake on my cot.


What is that?

That ache in my wrist that woke me up.

Surely it’s not…

I get up quickly and look for my checklist, the one I made after talking with the oncologist at  my last check-up. There it is, tucked away in my special Cancer Survivor backpack, the one I assembled after the end of radiation. I carry it around with my water bottle and dietary supplements. It’s got a special pocket for Good Humor.

Let’s see – what did the oncologist say?

Cancer doesn’t attack the joints, or recur below the elbows or knees. (“Everything else is fair game,” he said.)

Oh, so I guess that pain in my wrist is simply, what, arthritis? Or – no – maybe it’s degenerative joint disease, one of the side effects of chemo the naturopath told me about.

Or, maybe I just slept in the wrong position.

But just for security, let’s continue down the list.

The doc said that, if it spreads, breast cancer usually heads for the brain, lungs, bones, or liver.

So, let’s see:

No headache. Guess my brain’s OK (relatively speaking). Check.

Lungs? No cough or shortness of breath. Check.

Bones? No pain. Except for that wrist. But that’s a joint AND below the elbow. Double check.

And I’m hungry.

That’s a good sign. A good appetite and steady weight indicate a healthy liver.

But just to be sure, I’ll check my weight on the bathroom scale. I just happen to have one of those in my backpack too. (Mary Poppins would be so proud.)

Two pounds heavier.


I never gain weight (well, except for those pregnancies and that one summer at Girl Scout camp).

Uh-oh. Weight gain. Isn’t that one of the signs of ovarian cancer?? Sometimes breast and ovarian cancer are linked.

Rats — No trapdoor I can open into my body for a look inside.

OK, quick – pull on my shorts. If the waistband’s too loose, it could be weight loss from liver metastasis. But if it’s too tight — abdominal swelling can mean cancerous ovaries.

But these fit just right.


Must have been that Halloween candy my son gave me from his trick-or-treat bag, and all that extra sitting writing blog entries like this one.

I dig again through my backpack, looking for what, I’m not sure. And I see it in writing – a folder with a label that reads “cancer.”

Oh wait. No. That says “career.”


Last week I saw something written on my to-do list and I thought it too said “cancer.” But it was only my note to myself to cancel the newspaper. Yeah, I’d like to cancel cancer too.

I glance down and notice that small mole on my right calf. It disappeared during chemotherapy, but now it’s back.

Oh right, that’s below the knee, and therefore off limits.

Unless, of course, it’s . . . skin cancer.

I remind myself, as the oncologist said, that if today’s pain is new AND above the knees and elbows AND progressive, I should start the countdown. If the pain is still around after 2 weeks, I’m supposed to call him. I am amazed at how many pains can come and go from a body in the course of 2 weeks.

A few months ago, it was the lymph node under my jaw that was tender off and on for a month. Pressing on it (of course I did!) irritated my ear and sinus and I had some tingling along my nose and lips. I was sure this meant a brain tumor that was affecting my facial nerve. But then the air dried out and the molds disappeared and the node retreated into obscurity.

And that tender spot in my abdomen last fall turned out to be just a bladder infection.

If nothing else, all these false alarms are a test of how well I know my own anatomy. In the misguided process of trying to diagnose myself, I’ve discovered just where my liver and pancreas are and what they do. And now that I’m in menopause — not through the natural gradual descent but from a shove over the cliff by that villain chemotherapy – I wonder just where are those ovaries anyway? Everything in my body seems to have shifted. The joints work differently. Even my teeth don’t come together quite like they used to.

A yoga teacher once told me that, if we are spiritually healthy and mature, we grow in awareness. I don’t think this is the kind of awareness she meant.

I resent the way cancer has hijacked my thinking.

Hypochondria: It’s just another word for obsession.

“Presque tous les hommes meurent de leurs remèdes, et non pas de leurs maladies.”

Nearly all men die of their remedies, and not of their illnesses.

Molière: The Imaginary Invalid (1673), Act III, sc. iii

A Camp Fitch Tent Group

Image via Wikipedia


12 Responses to “Taking a Detour: The Making of a Hypochondriac”

  1. Maribeth D Says:

    This is wonderful – again – you are amazing. Makes me laugh and yet completely understand. I appreciate you and your writing! Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Kelly Baughn Says:

    I love your writing, Julie. And praying for you pain-free/hypochondria-free days.

  3. Sue Rickels Says:

    Ah Julie– such a normal reaction to being in tune w/your body, esp. since it’s betrayed you once. I know you well enough that this dreadful hypochonria is just another bump in the road. Not that it will ever go away, that you won’t always have all these various aches and pains in the back of your mind. But, I trust your great good sense and centeredness to pass through this stage as in Pilgrim’s Progress. The Slough of Despond will recede to the BACK of your awareness. If you didn’t feel this way now, you’d be having one of those delightful dexamethasone euphoria days. Keep on keeping on with the good care you are taking of yourself.

  4. Beverly Says:

    Wonderful post, Julie!!

    I truly think you should consider giving a copy of this to your oncologist, that he might share with patients as a way to illustrate just how this waiting period goes. It would be very helpful and reassuring to them, very easy to picture the common detour ahead. It is a classic.

    And maybe patients can even plot out in advance how to somehow sneak in a pet or two…?

    • Sue Rickels Says:

      Good idea, Beverly. I see the Popsickle Report is getting quite a few hits. I think Julie should publish her essays from here and her other blog, Firefly. But just printing out a few for patients would be great…along with a copyright notation, just in case. 🙂

  5. Beverly Says:

    Greg loved this too, by the way. He feels that all oncologists would seriously appreciate reading this and passing it along to patients. Copyright might be a good idea too, as mentioned (I know nothing of how that works though, but am sure you do).

  6. Ann Says:

    Thank you for this. I am post lumpectomy, pre chemo and radiation and am currently scared of my own shadow. Hearing about your hypochondria makes me feel better!

  7. Julie Yamamoto Says:

    Here’s a post by Patricia Prijatel concerning pain after cancer treatment, and the tendency toward worry. She writes about triple negative breast cancer on her blog Positives about Negative (http://hormonenegative.blogspot.com/), but her comments here are true for anyone with any type of cancer. (Posted with permission from the author.)
    Cancer: Such a Pain

    Posted: 21 Apr 2012 04:43 PM PDT

    I’ve had lingering pain from cancer treatment—nothing horrible, but enough to cause me concern. Recently, I heard from a reader who was worried about bone pain in the chest area—she was sure it was a recurrence. I told her I’d had the same pain and it eventually went away, but she was worried until she had a bone scan that came back clear.

    Bless our hearts, we all do this. Feel a pain, panic, talk ourselves out of that panic, then back into it. Get tested. Regret the test. Delight in the results.

    You know the drill. So I am starting a discussion about pain, in the hopes that we can share a bit of what we have been through and shed some light on what is normal after treatment.

    About half of all breast cancer patients have pain following treatment.

    My pains:

    • In the chest bone, most likely from radiation. My surgeon told me not to worry unless the pain woke me up at night. This never got that bad—in fact in came and went and was mostly a moderate and dull ache. It has since gone—it lasted about three years. Of course, if you Google “bone pain in breast bone,” you will immediately get to a site dealing with cancer metastases. Sheesh. So don’t Google it.

    • Around my surgery site. Even after nearly six years, my surgery still hurts—sometimes a shooting pain, sometimes a dull ache, sometimes nothing at all. The breast has nerves than can be cut in surgery; they will not recover. This pain comes less often than it used to, but it still pops up.

    • Lymphedema, or pain in the armpit. I have only slight pain here—perhaps because I assiduously did exercises from Thriving After Breast Cancer by Sherry Lebed Davis. Still, this is common and normal.

    Breastcancer.org has a good discussion on how to deal with pain related to cancer treatment.

    What’s important, though, is that you understand that some pain is natural and it does not mean that the disease is recurring. And the more we share what we’ve been through, the more we understand our new normal.

  8. Sweet Gum: In the Sshadow of Cancer « The Popsicle Report Says:

    […] Taking a Detour: The Making of a Hypochondriac […]

  9. Reprieve? « The Popsicle Report Says:

    […] Taking a Detour: The Making of a Hypochondriac […]

  10. Five years on: What does survival mean? | The Popsicle Report Says:

    […] I still occasionally wonder what I did to bring on the disease, though a recent study suggests what I’ve ultimately come to believe — that in many cases, cancer develops simply as a matter of “bad luck.” Still, although I’ve changed habits that might have led to my developing cancer, I can be prone to that same panic I felt at my initial diagnosis when some new pain shows up. […]

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