“Am I dying?!” is a question any reasonably unreasonable person may ask after getting, say, a sore throat or a headache. It’s also the title of a book by Columbia University Medical Center cardiologists Kelly and Eisenberg for such people. In its review, PW described Am I Dying?! (Morrow, Jan. 2019) as “lively, reader-friendly, and useful.” Here, the authors explain why so many patients are so anxious about their health.
Why do so many people immediately go to the worst possible scenario when it comes to their health?
CK: A lot of patients come to us experiencing a new symptom, and the reason they’re coming is frequently not because the symptom is so intolerable that they need relief immediately, but because they’re trying to understand what it means. We found people didn’t have a great resource available, short of coming to see their doctor, to get an initial sense of what the likely cause of their problem is.
ME: We’re in an age of information. A lot of people are trying to partake in their own medical care. They google all their symptoms. Unfortunately, a lot of symptoms can have multiple causes, and people will always keep going to the one that seems most worrisome. I get flooded with 40 to 100 emails every one to two days with people saying, “I’m having this symptom. Could I have heart problems? Could it be cancer?”
The internet certainly seems to be a major cause of health anxiety.
ME: It can be very concerning both ways. One, it might give people false hope, and they’ll think nothing’s wrong. They’ll think their nausea is nothing when it could be a heart attack. Or it could scare people and put them into a panic. In the book, we try to give more information for each symptom.
Are there other sources of medical panic?
ME: On TV, every other commercial is a pharmaceutical commercial. Patients start to worry about whether they have the same symptoms as the person in the commercial.
CK: Whenever a famous person is diagnosed with a disease, I think everybody becomes convinced they have that disease.
What are some benign symptoms patients often mistake as being serious?
ME: Urinating a lot. People will wake up two times a night, or they’re peeing all afternoon. Before you know it, they’re freaked out that they have diabetes or thyroid abnormalities or a brain tumor. A lot of times, it’s an easy fix. They’re drinking too much caffeine or eating too much salt. Another symptom, which it’s good that people come in for, is erection problems. It could be a marker of diabetes or heart disease.
CK: But often they’re actually just anxious.
Similarly, what are some serious symptoms patients often mistake as benign?
CK: Probably the most common problem is attributing things to normal aging that are not normal aging. Things like not being able to exercise so much, because you have heart disease—or feeling tired all the time, because you’re depressed. Mental health issues. Depression and anxiety are very common things for people to accept as inevitable parts of everyday life, when in fact they’re diagnosable and treatable conditions.
What can a book offer in the way of information about such symptoms that other sources can’t?
CK: Online resources are divided into highly accurate but highly dry and unengaging content written by reputable sources and much more interesting and engaging but often inaccurate and misleading content. We wanted to create something that was highly accurate—and highly engaging.