When Anet Greenley got sick four years ago, what upset her the most wasn't the continual nosebleeds, the numbness in her limbs, or even the fact that her stool had turned green. What really bothered her was the fact that nobody would take her seriously.
"My doctors all told me I was stressed out, that it was all in my head, that I was having panic attacks that upset my stomach," says the 38-year-old Ottawa native. "Even some of my family told me it was in my head.'"
But Ms. Greenley knew she was genuinely sick -- so sick that she had to quit the University of London and fly home from England. And several months later, after going from doctor to doctor, she finally found out she was right: She has multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a condition that makes her extremely sensitive, you could say allergic, to synthetic chemicals.
These days, Ms. Greenley can control her symptoms, as long as she avoids everything she reacts to: cologne, dryer sheets and car exhaust are just three irritants on a very long list. Other than that, though, there's nothing much she can do. The syndrome is so new that doctors still don't know what causes it -- or how to treat it.
And Ms. Greenley is not alone. According to a Statistics Canada study released last week, more than one million Canadians are suffering from illnesses that are stumping their doctors.
The most commonly reported conditions are MCS, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia (all of which affect twice as many women as men). Reports of a host of other mysterious diseases -- such as Morgellons and vulvodynia -- also seem to be increasing in both the United States and Canada.
What these disparate illnesses have in common is patients' struggle not only to find a cure for baffling symptoms, but to establish legitimacy for their complaints. The causes of these conditions remain controversial -- and many doctors continue to label symptoms as delusional.