Thursday, 13 November 2014

To Google or Not to Google? That is the Question

Well, actually, no it isn’t. On a basic level you should never do a straight up Google search for anything health related. Or, if you do, you should be prepared to take anything you find with half the planet’s production of salt in accompaniment.
I say this after a recent doctor’s appointment whereupon I was, with good humour, banned from Googling the problem because as we both agreed “Google will assure you that you have cancer”.
To give a short background, I have a solitary swollen lymph node (or that’s what we’re assuming it is at present) at the back of my jaw. It’s come up very quickly and having ruled out throat and ear infections doesn’t seem to have an underlying reason for deciding to wake up and party. I get the results of rushed-through blood tests tomorrow, and as far as I understand it the urgency is to do with the size and character of the swelling in that it’s hard to the touch (but it does move, which apparently is a good thing).
For the moment then, I look like I have about a couple of inches worth of spare lower jaw on my right side.
(All the better to eat you with, etc.
Image from

Let’s examine this example for a second. Good old Google would no doubt inform me that I have a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, being in the most prevalent age bracket and showing a couple of the possible peripheral effects of recent weight loss and a general status of “under the weather” – because as we all know, they’re completely specific to cancer.
I’m positive (knowing a great deal more about my circumstances than Google does) said weight loss and my general feeling of malaise have to do with the horrible build up to our move and the fact we’ve barely stopped since in terms of unpacking and the general things you have to buy, put together and do when you move into a new house. Nobody’s kidding when they say moving home is one of the three most stressful life events you can experience (alongside a death and a divorce).
In fact, for the sake of accuracy I even checked this earlier today (sorry Doc, but you can’t knock me for checking a theory) – put in “solitary swollen lymp node” or indeed “swollen hard lymph node” and the top few search results will be articles with the words Hodgkin’s Lymphoma helpfully emboldened, just in case you missed the fact that YOU DEFINITELY HAVE CANCER.
Not cool, Google.
I am of course being monstrously sarcastic here, but I’m using this to illustrate the point that unguided and unrestrained internet searches are not helpful things in regards to health. Particularly as patients with long running conditions with unspecific and widespread symptoms, it is productive and helpful in the long term to wise up about how and where to search.
Firstly, don’t just Google it. If you need to search a particular symptom or condition, use medical websites. is a good resource, WebMD is another. You’ve more chance of getting something specific on a website like that than you would have on a general search engine. If you have a diagnosis already and are trying to find out if a symptom is typical or could be something new, head to websites specific to your condition.
If you can find a forum board dedicated to your condition, so much the better. Start a topic about your symptom (if you can’t find any existing ones) and you’ll find most patients are happy to share their experiences in the hope of being able to help.  
I’m probably teaching many readers to suck eggs, but it is so important to not fall into the traps of believing whatever Google tells you, particularly if you are new to the realms of chronic illness and finding these things out for the first time.
More importantly, bear in mind that even those sorts of websites can only give you a general overview, or an “average” take on the symptoms and the condition. They’re based on how a condition “usually” presents or what a symptom “generally” indicates – which is why they are not to be wholly relied upon in conditions where the number of symptoms is quite large, or where the main symptoms are general such as fatigue or joint pain.
Using those two as examples, there are a myriad of conditions in which those two either separately or together occur, and fatigue in particular is one of the most general medical symptoms in existence. Fatigue can be a symptom of just about anything - yes Google, including cancer!
Taking the above into account this brings me to my most important point. Never self-diagnose.  Do your research and compile any information you think is relevant, but always take it to your doctor.  The information available on the internet, though helpful, is just too general to be used to form a concrete diagnosis.
Even when backed up by the experience of other patients, remember that chronic illnesses usually have the particular quirk of being quite different from individual to individual. A symptom match doesn’t necessarily dictate a diagnosis match, however much it might appear to “fit”.
If you don’t feel you’re getting anywhere with a doctor, always remember you have the right to request a second opinion or indeed take you and your health elsewhere. It’s important in long term ill-health to maintain a good doctor-patient relationship and that means both halves of the relationship being happy that the other is pulling their weight. If you want further reading material resources, you can always ask your doctor where they recommend you looking.

(“In the name of love” or “Hammertime”? You choose!)

In my experience doctors will appreciate the question far more than you (however well-intentioned) attempting to be a Google physician.
On that note I’m going to leave you, as I need to go do some reading into why it might be that Fiddler is seeking to destroy a particular patch of our hall carpet which seems to have offended him in the last few days. Maybe it’s calling him names after we’ve gone to bed of a night.
Answers in the comments section as to which of them we’re betting Google thinks is the potential cancer patient – the cat or the carpet.

I hope this is taken in the tongue-in-cheek manner in which it is intended, and I hope it is helpful. It’s very easy to get caught up in internet research that appears to fit, but it’s always best to approach this with a critical eye and with your doctor’s guidance and support.

Wishing you all many spoons xxx


  1. As you may have read, animals can sometimes diagnose cancer by smell or some sense that we don't really understand, so my bet is that the carpet has cancer, Fiddler has detected it, and he is trying to be proactive in removing it. Go Fiddler!

    As far as the tips for internet research, they are good ones. Thanks for laying this kind of thing out-- it's helpful to be reminded, and it's GREAT for those who are new to the chronic illness community to get off to a good start. I'm sure I'll find myself sharing this at some point, so thanks. You are always such a good writer. I find myself quite envious!

    1. Thanks Cassandra, that's really kind of you :) wishing you all the best for the New Year! x