It’s a running joke that no matter what symptoms you plug into WebMD, cancer is one of the possible diagnoses. So I was pleasantly surprised when cancer wasn’t high on the list in a search I did. But it should have been.
I had turned to WebMD because of a lump in my throat. On a visit to see my family in Kansas City, Mo., my mother noticed it. She mentioned she had been diagnosed with an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) in her 20s.
I brushed it off as nothing, especially since I didn’t have any of the typical symptoms of an overactive thyroid — no weight or hair loss, no sweating or insomnia. Even my old Kansas City doctor thought the lump was nothing when I visited him to refill a prescription that had run out.
Back home in New York, things began to change. My clothes became loose even though I was eating like my stomach was a bottomless pit. My thick mane of hair started thinning out and clumps of hair began clogging the shower drain. My heart pounded as if I was running a marathon, even while sitting. And though I was always tired, I had trouble sleeping no matter how exhausted I felt.
I made an appointment with my primary care physician. But I also did what many people do before they see the doctor — plugged my new symptoms into WebMD. I didn’t include the lump in my throat because it didn’t seem to be related to anything, and my old doctor hadn’t seemed worried about it. WebMD suggested that I had hyperthyroidism and 98 other possible conditions. Cancer didn’t appear until far down the list; thyroid cancer wasn’t on it at all.
My doctor agreed that I probably had hyperthyroidism. We joked about the Adam’s apple-sized lump in my throat while she drew blood to check my level of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). A low level indicates hyperthyroidism.
Curiously, my TSH level was completely normal. My doctor quickly referred me for a neck ultrasound and thyroid biopsy. I also had blood tests for everything from tuberculosis to lupus and Rocky Mountain spotted fever to find what was causing my symptoms. All of the tests came back negative, except the neck ultrasound and biopsy.
At 5 p.m. on a Friday, my doctor called and told me I had thyroid cancer. I didn’t hear anything she said after that, much like Walter White in “Breaking Bad.” All I really cared about at that moment was getting a cherry soda, as if the sugary drink would magically undo what she had said.
While the news that I had follicular thyroid carcinoma at age 23 caught me completely off guard, I was thankful that I was deemed “cured” after a simple surgery.
Luckily, the answer I got on WebMD didn’t seriously delay my diagnosis or harm my health. But it did change my thinking on these self-diagnostic tools. If I’m genuinely concerned about a new problem concerning my health, I now schedule an appointment with my doctor instead of paying a visit to WebMD. After the appointment, I use various websites, such as WebMD and the Mayo Clinic, to find information about the diagnosis, tests, or medication side effects.
The day may come when computers can accurately diagnose illness from a collection of symptoms. Until then, I’ll be sticking with medically trained humans.
Amy S. Wheeler is a senior account executive at Tiberend Strategic Advisors, a corporate communications firm specializing in the health care and life sciences industry. She also codirects Cupid’s Undie Run — New York, a charity run and party for the Children’s Tumor Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to ending neurofibromatosis through research.