Next month I have my physical scheduled, along with dermatology and gynecology exams, and I’m dreading all of them. Although I keep up on most of my preventive health checkups, I haven’t had a physical in several years, so I finally forced myself to schedule one. Like many women, I’d rather not spend a good portion of the day going to the doctor, much less getting poked and scrutinized in my body's private places. If I feel fine, I rationalize that I don’t need medical care, which is one reason I’ve put off my physical exam all these years.
I struggle with anxiety, so these particular upcoming medical visits make me intensely nervous. Whenever the nurse takes my blood, I worry the needle won’t successfully insert into my vein, which has happened many times before and is painful. When they take my blood pressure, I immediately tense up and my heart starts racing, so I take deep breaths to try and slow it down. I feel vulnerable under the bright fluorescent lights that highlight all the flaws on my skin. My hands and feet get cold and clammy, and my armpits start to sweat.
My dermatologist diligently scans every inch of me looking for precancerous moles, but even in this most invasive exam, her sweet, nonjudgmental nature comforts me. Still, I’ve had my share of callous doctors who make the already torturous experience worse. As I age, I’ve grown less tolerant of doctors who are critical and uncaring. I eventually realized I am their customer; if I don’t like their services, I can surely go elsewhere.
Behind my anxiety and dread lies a deeper fear that the doctor will find something wrong, which has happened to me before. My dermatologist has found precancerous moles that needed to be removed, and I fear she’ll find more or, even worse, diagnose melanoma. In my early 30s, they found two abnormal growths in my breasts during a routine mammogram. After painful biopsies and tracking these growths via ultrasound, I received even more shocking news: I had the BRCA mutation. Between my family history, my abnormal growths and especially having now discovered this genetic marker, my risk of developing breast cancer was extremely high. I endured countless tests and procedures and was urged to consider some big decisions about undergoing a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy, reconstructive surgery and a full hysterectomy.
A few years later, I went to the ENT for chronic sinus issues, and during the examination the doctor discovered a marble-size tumor on my parotid gland. After an ultrasound confirmed the diagnosis. I was sent to a specialist, who biopsied the growth and then surgically removed it. Had the doctor not found this particular tumor, it would have caused permanent swelling and facial paralysis.
I am grateful for every preventive procedure and medical intervention that has saved me from possible deformities, disease or even death. I’m deeply aware of the consequences had I not gone to the doctor, taken those tests and followed up on the results. This is why I schedule these exams and go, no matter how timeconsuming and stressful they might be.
Through the years, I've learned there are some things I can do to help manage my anxiety. I schedule appointments on days when I expect to feel emotionally and physically strong. I’ll clear my calendar so I can stick to my regular routine. I try not to plan anything else on those days that would be too stressful for me, so I’m not frazzled before or after the appointments. I always ask for the first opening after lunch because I’ve learned the longer I have to wait in that empty, quiet room, the more my anxiety rises with anticipation of what’s to come. (If you’re a morning person, the first appointment of the day works too.)
I also make time for self-care before the visit so I can focus on relaxation exercises that help settle my mind and calm my nerves. And I always tell my doctors I’m nervous. They need to know I struggle with anxiety so they can be more cautious and careful with me.
When we hit middle age, the risks of having serious health issues get higher, and uncertainty rises as we get older. More and more people I know and love have received distressing diagnoses. Some are battling for their lives, while others have sadly lost their fight. The realization that we are all on this earth for such a short time grows with increasing clarity every day.
I don’t have control over what might happen. I never have and I never will. But I do have control over the choices I make, and there’s a lot at stake when it comes to my health.
One in three people avoid going to the doctor, for a variety of reasons.
So, girlfriend, if you are that one person, will you join me in doing this hard thing for the sake of our health? You might feel afraid or think you don’t have time. Maybe the cost is too high or you think you’re fine. Make the appointments despite any of those reasons. You can do this, and so can I.
Do you have a fear of doctors? How do you cope with it? Let us know in the comments below.