The world will end in 2000, 2001 …well, soon!

September 5, 2001

We as a nation have begun to hear hoofbeats and think zebras, not horses. “Dateline,” “Oprah,” and late-night public service announcements are contributing to a kind of mass paranoia amplified by our ability to turn nonspecific

We as a nation have begun to hear hoofbeats and think zebras, not horses. “Dateline,” “Oprah,” and late-night public service announcements are contributing to a kind of mass paranoia amplified by our ability to turn nonspecific symptoms into predictors of impending doom with a few mouse clicks. Common sense tells us we have to stop. We should be able to smell the roses without fretting that a bee sting will send us into anaphylactic shock, or at least sip coffee without worrying that this gift to humanity will cause heart disease or miscarriage. (On the bright side, studies show that people who routinely drink caffeinated coffee are 50% to 80% less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease, 40% less likely to develop gallstones, and 24% less likely to develop colorectal cancer.)

Unfortunately, we tend not to look on the bright side. In fact, we try to get as gloomy as possible. The popularity of self-referral medicine plays into that tendency, much to the dismay of some physicians, especially cardiologists, several of whom get positively irate if you even talk about the benefits of coronary calcium screening.

I really can’t say how oncologists feel about those of us with a sixth sense for the warning signs of cancer. But I know younger people think we’re idiots. I know because I was once a younger person. It wasn’t that long ago that my (then) boss, a man in his late 60s, was worried about bone cancer. He was relieved when his doctor told him not to worry. I could have told him the same thing, since several days earlier I had seen him drop a hammer on the foot he thought had become malignant.

This kind of paranoia used to be called hypochondria. Now we-and I include myself-are being hailed as an enlightened public, taking health matters into our own hands. Either way, I’m glad radiology has come as far as it has. Medical imaging can now calculate the risk of heart disease and find precancerous polyps in the colon. It can spot the early signs of breast cancer and prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a fetus is doing just fine. Best of all, it can tell us these things with virtually no pain. And that’s the way it should be.

If medical science is going to create this heightened sense of health awareness, it should at least come up with ways to relieve it.