When I was eighteen, I started hallucinating smells. I knew my great-grandmother had been schizophrenic, and that schizophrenia tends to manifest when you're about eighteen, so I freaked out. I looked up the number for a psychiatrist, and called in a panic.
"You know, schizophrenics hallucinate voices, not smells. Hallucinating smells is a symptom of a brain tumor. You need a doctor, not a therapist." Then she wished me luck and hung up the phone.
As it turned out, I didn't have a brain tumor. I did have a condition called synesthesia, where sometimes my brain assigns tastes or smells or colors to things that are totally unrelated. I found that out the next year, when my chronic migraines led another doctor to tell me he thought I had a brain tumor. I spent a good two years having my brain checked out, just in case. It turned out to be something called "dysautonomia," which can cause synesthesia, as well as heart problems.
A few years later, my boyfriend told me he was having a hard time getting through his evening jogs. At first I thought he meant I was over feeding him, but he meant he kept mis-stepping on his left foot. It wasn't doing what he wanted it to do when he was going faster than a trot.
After a few run-ins with brain-tumor-happy doctors, I knew all the questions to ask. While he described what he was feeling, I thought of the teams of doctors who had put me through dozens of neurological exams, delighted when I showed the opposite results my boyfriend was talking about.
"You should see a doctor," I said. "That could totally be neurological." I tried to act cool and calm, because really, who wants to be the crazy girlfriend trying to convince their athletic and active boyfriend they might have a brain tumor?
"It's probably a pinched nerve," he said, and that was that.
A few months later, he started playing in the company softball league. He kept stumbling as he ran bases. "It's got to be that pinched nerve," he said. "It could be neurological," I countered. "You should see a doctor." And after watching him tweak his ankle while jogging on more than one occasion, I started nagging him to go get himself checked out. Months later, he agreed. When he came home he smiled in an I-told-you-so kind of way.
"My doctor thinks it's a pinched nerve. He said he could do a neural pathway test, but why bother if we already know what it is? I'm supposed to stretch more, and go back in a few months if it's not better."
I let it go, only asking him once in a while if he was stretching properly. He assured me he was, but his symptoms didn't get better.
Three months after that, he had a grand mal seizure during one of those softball games, and was rushed to the hospital. When he had CT scans and MRIs, they showed us what a neural pathway test would have told us to look for, tumors in his brain.
He had cancer, not a simple pinched nerve.
Sometimes, there is no explanation for the feeling you get when you know something’s wrong. There’s no reason to believe you aren’t paranoid, or emotional, or just plain nuts. Except deep down, you know. Your gut knows. Your deepest intuition knows.
It’s not worth the risk to ignore those feelings. It’s not worth it to tell yourself you’re not an expert. It’s not worth it to tell yourself you don’t trust your own feelings.
Make your voice heard, and stand up for those feelings. Be your best advocate. The worst case scenario? You’re wrong. Best case scenario? You could save somebody’s life. And it could be yours.