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Worrying About Our Health When a Loved One is Ill—Normal or Not?

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I was trying to get some work done at my desk when the phone rang. It was January of 2007 and caller ID showed that my Dad was calling. It wasn’t Thursday, his usual day to phone me, so I knew before answering that something was up.

Sure enough, after a few minutes of chit chat, my then 78-year-old Dad tried to make light of a serious situation. “Well,” he said, “I’m afraid that when you go in to your doctor’s office and fill out forms saying what diseases your relatives have, you’ll have to add cancer to the list.”

What? Was my Dad trying to tell me that he had cancer?

Unfortunately, he was. He had just come from the doctor’s office, he said, where he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. He didn’t know all of the details of his treatment yet, but he assured me it probably meant just getting the small tumors removed. He sounded positive and upbeat about his condition, and after a few more minutes on the phone we hung up and I tried to get back to work as if everything was okay.

But as I shared my father’s news with my closest friends and family members that week, I found myself experiencing an interesting phenomenon. While I was able to speak very calmly and positively about my Dad’s health and feeling no fear about his prognosis, on the inside, I was terrified—about my own health.

Yes, you read that right. I was suddenly convinced that I was most assuredly quite ill. For the record, I have never ever been overly concerned about my health and/or a hypochondriac. But after hearing the news that my Dad was ill with cancer, I became convinced it was some “sign” or something that I was next.

I’m not a psychologist, but looking back I am pretty sure I was transferring my anxieties over my Dad’s cancer to myself. The thought of losing my Dad was so scary to me that I essentially stuffed my feelings under the proverbial rug, where they instead popped up in the form of worrying about myself.

Even when his “just getting the small tumors removed” turned into minor surgery combined with six rounds of chemotherapy, I remained cool, calm, and collected the whole time when thinking about him. But when I went in for my first mammogram right around the same time, I was a nervous wreck, utterly convinced I had breast cancer. Even the letter in the mail and phone call saying my results were normal were not enough to completely allay my worries.

My annual exam at the gynecologist was the same way—I fretted for days over the specter of ovarian or uterine cancer until I got the automated phone call that all was well.

It’s been over two years now and my Dad is thankfully in remission. And for the most part, my fears about my health are in remission too. But I’m concerned for the next time a loved one gets sick—I want to focus on him or her and not myself. So, has this ever happened to you? If it has, what are some of the ways that you dealt with it? I’d love to hear your ideas and tips for managing your stress over a loved one’s illness.

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