First serious health scare of adulthood - how to cope?
July 3, 2016 6:56 AM   Subscribe

I'm on the waiting list for an unpleasant but not life-threatening procedure, but the results might be Something Serious. So I'm obviously terrified and already prone to hypochondria. This is starting to impact my day-to-day mental functions. Scared snowflakes inside.

Late this spring, I, um, noticed that my stool was occasionally bloody. Not like lots of blood but enough where I'm like, "Oh, well, that's not normal." It was (and is) intermittent. My partner asked me to meet up with our GP to get it looked at. Now our GP has awful bedside manners (she's quite gruff and perfunctory, but whatevs). She determined that I didn't have hemorrhoids, put me on the waiting list for a sigmoidoscopy, and said, "Does anyone in your family have a history of colon cancer? That's a possibility." I replied no, and she said it could also colitis or IBS too.

Cut to three weeks later--I'm in Canada so waiting lists for certain medical procedures can be long--and all I can think of is cancer. Like, to the point I can't think about the future or anything else. Like, where I want to find somewhere to hide and cry all the time. As someone who already has anxiety and depression and is prone to panic attacks, I don't know what to do. I've tabled talking about this to my therapist next time we meet. But I'm mentally paralyzed. How can I distract a brain that has already given me decades of grief over everything, physical and emotional?

posted by Kitteh to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If it's any consolation, I've had blood off-and-on throughout my life since I was a child, and it's nothing. I'll have some for a day or two, and then nothing for the rest of the year.

We've been so indoctrinated to assume the worst when it comes to medicine, that I understand how easy it is to get really wound up about it. All I can say is, there's nothing to worry about until there really is something to worry about.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:20 AM on July 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Colon cancer caught early is one of the easiest cancers to treat & the treatment has a very high success rate, if that’s any consolation?
posted by pharm at 7:20 AM on July 3, 2016 [12 favorites]

Unfortunately it is difficult, if not nigh impossible, to distract or table a fear such as this. it is a legitimate fear that can and will be resolved. Realistically, the best you can do is work at decatastrohpizing it. Workbooks/sheets designed to help with this are available on line. This may or may not help--I hope your test results are negative, reassuring and > a clear and successful treatment plan.
posted by rmhsinc at 7:21 AM on July 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I had cancer last year. I hesitate to even respond because I've been a bit of a mess about it myself - I'm not sure I can offer much wisdom other than to say what you're feeling is totally and completely normal, and no matter what you won't always feel like this. Even if you get the worst news (which is statistically unlikely!), you will find a way to learn to live with it. Everyone does. I read last week that humans only live in acute crisis about three weeks, on average, before finding a way to mentally adjust to the new reality.

I also read last week in a book by a cancer survivor that if you live in constant fear and sadness, the disease wins, even if it doesn't come back. I've had an extremely difficult time with the uncertainty following treatment, but this perspective made me realize I can choose to live as if I don't have cancer anymore. It's a mind game, for sure - don't think about what might happen, just live as if it's not going to - and it's going to take practice, but even in the last few days of applying this strategy it's a lot better than replaying statistics and examining every symptom trying to compile the data into a kind of certainty that just cannot exist.

Anyway, this time right now is going to be hard no matter what. Talk to your doctor about anxiety medication for the short term. Re-watch your favorite mindless comedies and re-read your favorite books. (Binging Arrested Development was possibly the single most useful thing in getting me through those first weeks of diagnosis.) Go for long walks with your partner or friend. Do whatever it takes to distract yourself. The time will pass, though, and you'll get through it.
posted by something something at 7:32 AM on July 3, 2016 [11 favorites]

My thoughts are with you. This sucks and is awful. Do the things that make you comfortable, whichever ones your brain will allow.

People are going to say therapy and I think that's a fantastic idea. However. I would ask to supplement that with an as needed benzo. I went through my first major health scare last year: they found something life threatening, and I spent months in a storm of anxiety while they figured it out. My friend - a psychiatrist - was the one to recommended this, as she said that the risk of addiction less concerning then the mental anguish from the situation. And she was right. Shortly after my problem resolved (part of that resolution was just knowing and having a plan), I no longer needed the rx.
posted by lilnublet at 7:34 AM on July 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

How long do you have to wait? Is paying out of pocket to have it done privately (so, earlier) a possibility? Just to get it over with sooner?
Ninety per cent of colon cancers are diagnosed after the age of fifty. They can happen in younger people too but much less often. Cancers that manifest by bleeding (left colon cancers) are less likely to be advanced than cancers that manifest in other ways. Statistically, you are much more likely to end up with the diagnosis of NOT CANCER.
Please hang in there.
And seconding short term anti anxiety meds. And looking for another GP.
posted by M. at 7:44 AM on July 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have the same symptom on and off. Told my doc about it and she said it was likely the result of, um, constipation. I was advised to drink more water.

I also had cancer a few years ago and the fear and anxiety I experienced after getting the diagnosis was similar to what you describe. However, the fear began to subside after I did some research, got a plan in shape, and told my friends and family, who were all very supportive. I researched the outcomes for my particular type of cancer and that was reassuring for me.

I'm no therapist so take this with a grain of salt - but you might consider picking the end result that most alarms you and researching it and making some sort of high-level plan. "OK, if I get this diagnosis I'll want to ask my doctor x, y and z."

You could try to throw your energy into something that is both helpful for anxiety and good for your health, like exercise.

Good luck to you!
posted by bunderful at 7:47 AM on July 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm not a doctor but if she were really seriously worried about colon cancer wouldn't she have ordered a colonoscopy rather than a sigmoidoscopy? It suggests to me that she at least thinks it's quite likely that she will see some kind of fissure and not need to look further. So I would focus on that for now.
That, and tell yourself over and over: It is probably fine but whatever happens, I will be able to deal with it.
Someone might correct me on my diagnostic-test hypothesis but that's what I'd surmise if it were me... I also have a doctor who blurts out every possible but unlikely disease I might have -- like Oh you have a rash, it's possible that it's leprosy. Some doctors just seem to think you'll find it fascinating :).
posted by flourpot at 8:00 AM on July 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I recommend the works of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He has excellent evidence-based mindfulness techniques specifically targeted for those with illness (among other ailments).

Two other notes on Canadian health care - one is that if you're waiting for imaging, you're probably not going to die imminently. Triage is pretty good. The other, which I admit is cold consolation, is that of all seven weeks I spent in hospital with my husband in the GI ward, only one patient died of cancer. The rest just looked like death warmed over but were not in any imminent risk of demise. Lots of Chrons and colitis out there, which is manageable. Good luck.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:50 AM on July 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: At this point, you should pat yourself on the back for being an adult and having it followed up on. Most things that this might be are either (1) best caught soon (again, yay you!) or (2) totally manageable once you know what it is.
posted by plinth at 8:53 AM on July 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

IANAD, but you might want to constrain sugar consumption while you are waiting.
posted by Baeria at 1:31 PM on July 3, 2016

My father had colon cancer. He was having chronic diarrhea, losing drastic amounts of weight and being rushed to the ER. If what you have is colon cancer, I think you would be catching it really early, which will dramatically improve your prognosis.
posted by Michele in California at 6:37 PM on July 3, 2016

Best answer: I generally take it as a good thing when I don't get an appointment for a test or procedure right away. If your doctor thought there was a high risk of something very dangerous and time sensitive, you would have had the test the same day. The doc would have told you to go to the ER and have the test there, if necessary.

Remember, the last thing you want when you walk into an ER is to have 6 doctors rushing to treat you. You want to be the person sitting in the waiting room for hours, because those are the people nobody thinks are in any real danger. I realize you're not in the ER, but the principle is the same.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:24 PM on July 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Some good advice here, and I agree that being on a wait list IS a good indicator that your problem is not considered urgent. I have an untreatable neoplastic disorder and I get imaged far too often for my liking, but I go to each and every MRI, biopsy, and ultrasound procedure and I'm pleased to say that all of them involved appointments made many weeks in advance, because they have to check for liver and spleen tumors on a regular basis, and none of them returned an alarming result. Keep telling yourself that it if were urgent that you would not be waiting for the procedure, because it's true. I empathize, though; my last ultrasound really freaked me out for some reason and then I had to keep telling myself that my hematologist would be calling me in right away if there were a reason to worry and that she wasn't rushing to push my appointment up. And, as said by many above, IF there were a bad result, early detection will make colon cancer very effectively treatable.
posted by alltomorrowsparties at 12:54 AM on July 4, 2016

Best answer: I generally take it as a good thing when I don't get an appointment for a test or procedure right away. If your doctor thought there was a high risk of something very dangerous and time sensitive, you would have had the test the same day. The doc would have told you to go to the ER and have the test there, if necessary.

This is what my doctor told me when we were pretty sure I had problem X but we had to rule out cancer. I took the soonest test appointments I could, for my own peace of mind, but she said she wouldn't have let me leave the building if she was really concerned. OTOH, my mother's doctor recently sent her straight to the ER to get an MRI.

Triage is pretty good.

And just to add a little more reassurance, at the ER visit I just mentioned I had a conversation about this exact thing with her nurse, who is Canadian and used to practice there. (It was just a general conversation comparing the two healthcare systems.)

OTOH, a few years ago I was told I needed a biopsy just before X-mas and it inexplicably took three weeks -- after the new year -- before I got a phone call back from my dentist and the doctor who was supposed to do the biopsy. It turned out negative but I was just a ball of tears and anxiety.

Hugs if you want them, and feel free to MeMail any time.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:16 AM on July 4, 2016

It's a strange quirk of my brain but I find that the phrase "borrowing trouble" helps me to put aside "what if?" worries that are planned for. Internal dialogue goes like: "What if it's colon cancer?" "Future me will deal with it. I've set her up as well as I can." "BUT WHAT IF THAT WOULD BE AWF --" "Don't borrow trouble." And it's just quietly soothing for me to realize that the trouble will wait for me. If there's going to be trouble, it'll be there for me waiting in the future and I don't have to deal with it now and there's no benefit to dealing with it now, when I don't even know if I'm borrowing the right trouble or not.

Weird brain quirks and I have no reason to expect your brain to respond the same. But just in case.
posted by Lady Li at 12:06 AM on July 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

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