Hypochondria for Profit

I went to the doctor the other day for my post-op follow up. Everything is good, though my blood tests showed some little things that need to be investigated. Nothing serious mind you, just an overabundance of caution on the surgeon’s part.

Of course, no one likes to hear that there’s anything wrong with them, especially me. So when I got back to my car I found myself worrying about what might be going on in my body. When you get into your forties things start breaking. I’ve had three root canals, my gallbladder sucked out, high cholesterol that only responds to medication a bum knee, bad hearing and stronger and stronger eyeglass prescriptions. Of course all of this is fairly standard stuff as we age and people are dealing with far, far more serious problems. I had a friend who never made it out of his thirties. But what did that song say? People may have greater problems than you, but your problems are still your problems. So it behooves us to attend to our health and it’s okay to have reasonable worries regarding our physical well being.

Reasonable worries.

A couple of months ago I noticed a strange vibration in my butt. So when I went for my annual physical I told my doctor about it and he told me he had the same thing from thirty years of carrying a beeper. Turns out my ass got used to my cell phone buzzing in my back pocket and missed it when it wasn’t there. And after I stopped carrying my iPhone near my keister that phantom buzzing went away.

But before I went to the doctor I made the biggest mistake anyone having strange symptoms can do – I went on the Internet. Oh boy, when you listen to people without medical degrees squawking about their health woes in Internet forums you walk away convinced that you have some terrible disease that will put you in the grave within months. So I stopped doing that. Now when I have a concern I talk to a doctor – knowing full well they’re not omnipotent gods.

Now people with actual disorders have on-line support groups and that’s a great thing. And the Internet is also actually helping physicians solve our health problems. When I worked in hospitals I heard doctors say, “I have no idea what the hell is going on with this guy.” So when they’re stumped they can put their problem out on the web and gets some feedback from a doctor who’s had the same issues and solved them. Very cool.

But as I tooled through some health websites today I noticed that almost all of them advertized some kind of supplement, quack treatment and, of course, drugs from the pharmaceutical industry. These guys aren’t out to make you feel better. They’re out to make a buck. And things aren’t much better in the mainstream media. Everyday we hear about some kind of new illness making the rounds, health concerns regarding certain kinds of foods and constant reminders about our mortality. Then right after we hear about these things there’s a friendly advertisement hawking drugs for better hardons, cholesterol lowering drugs, psychotropic medication, botox, sleeping pills, dry eyes, arthritis pain, irritable bowel syndrome, irregularity, breathing problems, stroke prevention, obesity and, my favorite, getting rid of toe nail fungus. And have you seen that advertisement where a hospital gurney follows a patient around while trumpeting some kind of drug? I’ll bet the guys on Madison Ave would have turned that gurney into a coffin if given half the chance.

You don’t have to be Einstein to figure out what’s going on here. The media loves scaring the shit out of us because it scores ratings and it’s no accident those Big Pharma ads come right after they’re through scaring the shit out of us. If you ask me, the biggest mistake we ever made was letting these companies hawk their wares on television.

Of course there are people who do suffer from the above-mentioned problems and benefit from drugs. I take statin medications so my genetic predisposition to heart disease doesn’t screw me up one day. But you’ll almost never hear these ads asking you to find out WHY you’re having these symptoms and how to manage them without drugs or make healthier choices. Out of legal obligation they just rattle off all the significant side effects these drugs can cause. One pill is known to sometimes induce nymphomania! (Maybe I could get behind that.) And there’s a large segment of the population who see these ads and start pestering their doctor to give them these medications. Trust me, it drives a lot of MDs batshit. My doc’s advice is always the same – lose weight, exercise, eat right and try not to worry so much. Stress, he always says, is the biggest killer.

But some people are absolutely in love with their illnesses. We all know people like this. All they talk about is their problems, doctors, symptoms and medication. Now don’t get me wrong here, support groups are valuable – but sometimes too much is too much. For some people their illness defines them and that’s sad. And let’s face it, a lot of their nervous jabberings are attention seeking behavior. Just go to an Internet forum to see what I’m talking about. But despite what the people pulling the media strings might tell you, we’re persons with lives to live. We have families, jobs, passions, hobbies and good causes to attend to. We are more than what afflicts us. And I’ve met a good number of people with real problems who refuse to let them slow them down. Have you seen those double amputees come back from Iraq and play basketball on their prosthetic legs? And we freak out over toenail fungus? Please.

One of the principal components of hypochondria is seeking constant reassurance that our bodies are not betraying us. And a good reason that we can be like this is that we don’t have people, or well functioning people, that can provide healthy reassurance when anxiety about health or life itself strikes us. So we turn to doctors. But the best way to live a healthy life is not to be alone. We need family, friends and significant others to be healthy. We all need a life. And as I’ve gotten older I’ve discovered loneliness maims us terribly.

As my doctor said – stress kills. And stressing out about your health is a good way to wreck it. And I’m not talking out of my ass here; I’ve had to struggle with this issue myself. And the best cure for that will always be a gentle health regimen and people who surround us with love. Despite the fact that many good people develop drugs to improve the quality of our lives, don’t kid yourself – Big Pharma isn’t your friend. To them you’re a profit center. Don’t be that. Now have some ice cream and sex – at the same time if you can.

You’re not dead yet.


Comments

Hypochondria for Profit — 30 Comments

  1. Big pharm drives me just a little bat****. Yeah, they have made some breakthroughs, but I am completely sick of the commercials. Especially when some of the side effects are as serious as DEATH. I think I can live with whatever is wrong with me, so long as I can keep living, thank you.
    Deep breaths, yoga, and a bit of scotch of an evening, and loving friends…these keep me sane and healthy.

  2. I have no tie to this web site, so I am not looking to promote my own interests, but I do find it interesting and useful in sorting through the hype that surrounds many medical issues. Check it out: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/

    I hope the tests will find that everything is ok, or that you have something that is simple and treatable! Good luck.

  3. “If you ask me, the biggest mistake we ever made was letting these companies hawk their wares on television.” You are so right about that one. The only place I want to hear about medication is from my doctor.

  4. For an entertaining trip through the bowels of the internet, try looking up Morgellon’s disease. Somehow it ties into “contrail theory” which gets you into 9-11 conspiracists. I’ll never look up another disease ever again on the Web.

  5. haha … i got the train to work today as i hurt my arm and didnt want to risk riding the motorbike. walking from the train to my office my knee started to hurt! about the same time my knee was yelling at me i walked past the courthouse and saw and the people standing around in their suits (the kind of people that don’t normally wear suits, who stand around a courthouse if you know what i mean) and thought.. my arm and knee might be sore but at least that’s not me !!!

    so funny to get here and read this straight after…

    you’re a blogging machine of last Steve, i can’t wait for the new book!

    Cheers.

  6. I love that you mention all the symptoms of these drugs, but people are reluctant to talk to their doctor about it or find the real problem WHY? It amazes me all the weight loss stuff you see these days, yet people want to sell you a pill or a fat burning new supplement or eating plan when really they should be telling you to get to the gym and cut back on the drive thru’s and mochas. Doctors just will write you a prescription for whatever instead of helping you get to the root of a problem, no matter what it is. It makes stuff like your bread and circuses rant look a little less like ranting and a little more common than we might like to think. While I wouldn’t go as far as a conspiracy, the argument is definitely there.

  7. Sometimes I’m really critical of your articles, and I don’t regret that, but I thought this one was really good.

    I enjoyed reading it because I share all of the same opinions. Good job.

  8. I’ve actually found the best way to use the internet for medicine is to have someone else do it for you. I had a really bad case of mono last year and it wasn’t officially diagnosed until after multiple visits to the student health center and another local doctor’s office… three months later.

    On the other hand, I described my symptoms to a friend of mine who went on the internet, and he had it pegged (correctly) within a week. Just some food for thought.

  9. ITA Waiter! More than half the stuff that’s in the vitamins & herbals section of our pharmacy where I work is cr*p! I’ve seen more people come in with Rx’s for medications that are simply to counteract the side effects of stuff they are already on. Or they want the latest product they saw on TV last night (’cause anything you see at 3am in the morning MUST be good for you). When you have to bring home all your drugs in a big box from the pharmacy, something is a little messed up. Just sayin’

    I am all for ice cream & sex (not necessarily in that order).

    murgatr

    Pharm. Tech. RDC ’06

  10. I have to take issue that Big Pharma is not your friend. As someone who works in an industry that tries to invent life saving drugs – I think you are mischaracterizing this industry. We are not the ones who are creating cigarettes which cause cancer. We don’t make sugary drinks which if taken enough give you diabetes. We make products which help people yet we are the bad guys?

    As to the list of side effects in commercials – that is the FDA requirement. But – it is important that people realize what can happen if you take medications. I would love it if McDonalds was required to say – hey, these fries will make your ass big. Or porche would say, just because you drive our car, doesn’t mean you will get laid more. But, other industries are not regulated like we are.

    Eat right and exercise and you won’t need drugs. But people are not like that.

    And, you may hate DTC – but think of all of the people who suffered in silence with depression before pharma brought it into the open. Even for ED drugs – many men thought that there was nothing they could do to fix this.

    It is not a perfect industry and we have faults – but we are trying to INVENT new life saving products for you.

    We are the good guys

  11. So true Steve. I just found out I had lupus and reading about it online scared the crap out of me. When I talked to the actual doctor it was a better experience.

    And I was just thinking about your new book today when I tipped the flower delivery guy. Cant wait to read it :) :)

  12. The problem of reading yourself sick is nothing new under the sun. See the first chapter of Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat” (1889):

    “I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch–hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into-some fearful, devastating scourge, I know-and, before I had glanced half down the list of ‘premonitory symptoms’, it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.

    I sat for a while frozen with horror; and then in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever-read the symptoms-discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it-wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance-found, as I expected, that I had that too-began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically-read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years, Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.

    I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight. Why hadn’t I got housemaid’s knee? Why this invidious reservation?…”

    When he goes to see his doctor about this catalog of new diseases, he is given a prescription that many of us could use:

    “I read the prescription. It ran:

    1 lb beefsteak, with
    1 pt bitter beer
    every 6 hours.
    1 ten-mile walk every morning.
    1 bed at 11 sharp every night.
    And don’t stuff up your head with things you don’t understand.”

  13. You’re not kidding about internet medical advice. Last year I was on vacation and had some symptoms that I thought may be the precursor to menopause.

    So I googled it. Big mistake. From reading the sites I found, my life was about to go to hell. In a painful, gruesome, spare no details kind of way. (I will spare you the details)

    So I had a full blown panic attack instead. And ended up going to the doctor for that, not the symptoms I was looking into in the first place. Thanks, internet.

  14. I think whoever made the decision to allow the radio and television ads on medicine, doctors, and hospital care should be made to empty bed pans the rest of their days. I am a person who cannot watch any television medical drama without getting the disease of the week. Now, if I believe the ads I must actually sleep at the hospital because I will need to see my doctor every morning. Of course, it better be a Beaumont doctor, because (according to the ad)a trip to ER usually means you are admitted and do you pick your hospital with less care than you pick your restaurant? I kid you not.

  15. “For some people their illness defines them and that’s sad.”

    This is so true. I struggle with agoraphobia and used to go to an online forum for support. I quickly discovered that many people seem to wallow in their problems so much that if their panic were to suddenly disappear, they’d lose their identity. Not healthy.

  16. Steve

    Sorry about your gallbladder.

    I actually feel pretty good. I mean considering I have Stage IV breast cancer.

    You can treat Stage IV cancer. You just can’t beat it, contrary to popular opinion.

    There is no cure for metastatic breast cancer aka advanced breast cancer or Stage IV. We rarely hear about the 150,000 U.S. women dealing with it. In October, it seems the spotlight is almost exclusively on women who “beat” cancer—not the “metser” who is losing her hair for the third time, or the one struggling with chronic constipation or the one who knows she won’t see her daughter graduate from grade school.

    I’ll always have breast cancer, even when October ends and we say goodbye to Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

    As someone with MBC, I’d like people to know:
    >Metastasis refers to the spread of cancer to different parts of the body, typically the bones, liver and lungs.
    >Treatment is lifelong and focuses on control and quality of life vs. curative intent.
    >About 6% to 10% of women are Stage IV from their initial diagnosis.
    >Early detection is not a cure. Metastatic breast cancer can occur ANY time after a woman’s original diagnosis, EVEN if she was initially Stage I, II or III.
    >Only women with Stage 0 (noninvasive breast cancer) aren’t considered to be at risk for metastatic breast cancer.
    >Between 20% to 30% of women initially diagnosed with regional stage disease WILL develop metastatic breast cancer.
    >Young women do get metastatic breast cancer.
    > There are many different kinds of metastatic breast cancer.
    >Treatment choices for MBC are guided by hormone (ER/PR) and HER2 receptor status, location and extent of metastasis (visceral vs. nonvisceral), previous treatment and other factors.
    >Any breast lump, thickness or skin abnormality should be checked out. With inflammatory breast cancer, there’s no lump—the breast can be red and/or itchy and the skin may have an orange-peel like appearance.
    >Don’t use the recent mammogram controversy to postpone your first mammogram or delay your regularly scheduled exam, especially if you have a family history.
    >Mammograms can’t detect all cancers. Trust your instinct. If something feels “off” insist on further diagnostic testing.
    >Metastatic breast cancer isn’t an automatic death sentence—although most women will ultimately die of their disease, some can live long and productive lives.
    >There are no hard and fast prognostic statistics for metastatic breast cancer. Every woman’s situation is unique.

    One last thing. Knowing what to say to someone with metastatic breast cancer can be difficult.
    It’s fine to say: “I’m so sorry that you have to face this disease. I will be thinking/praying for you. Please let me know if I can help.”
    Try to avoid back-handed compliments such as: “You are so strong, if this had to happen, you were the right person to get it because you are brave and strong,” or “If I had breast cancer, I would be falling apart or scared to death. You seem just fine with it.”
    Those statements are akin to “You don’t sweat much for a fat person,” and we hate them.

  17. Big pharma are a pain, but remember, they only have seven years to recoup the research investment they’ve made on a drug before it goes generic.

    After all, only a pea-brain buys the trade name medicine if there is a generic about.

  18. A few years back I went online to research a prescription drug my doctor wanted me to take. I was so freaked out by everything I read that I refused to take the medication for 6 months. Finally, I reluctantly took the prescription and it worked exactly as my doctor told me it would. He then gently told me to stop looking those things up on the internet. Point taken, doc! Never again.

  19. I knew the medical field was going to heck when I started to hear about “conditions” that did not exist when I was trained 30 years ago, After “our friend” big pharma found a cure – we then had a new disease!

  20. My wife’s aunt died of Alzheimers several years ago. For many years prior to that, she “enjoyed poor health,” particularly Acid Reflux Syndome. “People have died from that, you know,” she always used to tell us. Fortunately, once she got Alzheimers, she forgot that she was sick, and was a lot easier to live with. My grandmother, on the other hand, was greatly overweight and healthy as a horse. She firmly believed that physical infirmity was indicative of moral weakness. “If you’re happy, you’re healthy!” was her credo. I live by her rules, and I’m enjoying life at 74.

  21. I just love how theres a medical condition for everything now. You’re not “shy” anymore, you have a “social anxiety disorder.” It’s not “teenage hormone driven bad skin” but acne that will never ever go away unless you take this medicine.

    I think that some people feel more validated the more handfuls of pills they have to take on a daily basis.

    On the topic of “magic weight loss pills” my manager recently started a “diet” where you sprinkle this salt/sugar thing on everything you eat. Not only is it god awfully expensive, but its given her free rein to think that she can continue eating fatty sugary foods, not exercise and not gain weight. Not suprisingly, she has taken to eating more than ever and gained 5 pounds which she has chalked up to “her body adjusting.”

    Let’s all get up off our booties and go for a walk!!! After a glass of wine, that is.

  22. I’ve always found a little knowledge on medicine to be a handy thing. If nothing else, this has calmed down a few worrying moments. One of the most worrying was finding broken glass on a salad I’d started eating. Fifteen minutes later, I was almost relaxed, and had certainly sorted out how to handle it.

    Admittedly, when I’m researching this sort of thing, I tend to pop into sites like the mayo clinic, make a point of ignoring the ads, and read the fringe results with only mild interest. If nothing else, side effects tell you whether this is snake oil or the real stuff (A sleeping pill should probably warn you that you might be too sleepy to drive) and the less common results of a sickness can be interesting (wow, I did get an eye infection during a cold once) but a good site shouldn’t try to worry you about them much.

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