Fear and Cancer

One of the best ways to deal with fear is to have a better understanding of what causes you fear.  The answer is simple: cancer causes it.  In a Harris Poll published in 2011, 41% of those polled listed cancer as being their top health fear.  However, most medical deaths in the United States result from heart disease, which in this poll only 8% of the 1,007 respondents reported as a significant health fear! 

We are facing an epidemic of cancer fear; we have become a society with cancer phobia.  Cancer creates great fear, but should the level of fear be this high?  The real concern about cancer phobia is that it can lead to over diagnosis and to over treatment, both of which can be dangerous as well as expensive.  It also unnecessarily ruins people's quality of life.

Physical risks, or fear of them, make all of us feel scared.  Research by Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon and Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon, experts in the field of decision and risk, have found that the higher the perceived potential pain and suffering a risk involves, the more fear it causes. Since cancer often involves pain and suffering, both from the disease and the treatment's side effects, the levels of fear felt can become quite significant.   

Risks for which we are unable to control, or that we perceive we are unable to control, also increase levels of feeling fear.   With cancer, we often feel pain from the disease as well as the treatments themselves.  We also may feel out of control, so our level of fear increases.    All this fear adds up and makes cancer a horribly scary reality for many of us.  

Despite all the progress we’ve made in controlling cancer, and we have made very significant progress, it remains scarier than the more lethal heart disease.  We are cancer phobic and this is not a new issue. 

Over forty-five years ago Congress passed the National Cancer Act of 1971.  This confirmed the feelings of the members of Congress and their constituents "that cancer is the disease which is the major health concern of Americans."   The Act literally declared “War on Cancer.”  

In a 1955 edition of Life Magazine, Dr. George Crile Jr. wrote an article, “Fear of Cancer and unnecessary operations”. In the article Dr. Crile said “Those responsible for telling the public about cancer have chosen the weapon of fear, believing that only through fear can the public be educated. Newspapers and magazines have magnified and spread this fear, knowing that the public is always interested in the melodramatic and the frightening. This has fostered a disease, fear of cancer, a contagious disease that spreads from mouth to ear. It is possible that today, regarding the total number of people affected, fear of cancer is causing more suffering than cancer itself. This fear leads both doctors and patients to do unreasonable and therefore dangerous things.”

Cancer is scary.  Even with all our progress, it remains among the scariest medical diagnoses a person can receive.  A cancer diagnosis is terrifying whether it is your first cancer or if you have had other cancer diagnoses.  

Dealing with a cancer diagnosis can paralyze many of us.  Even the smartest, most assertive of us can lose our wits.  We may become unable to function, unable to make the best decisions.  We may become steeped in depression, anxiety, and terror.  We may become angry, flying off the handle over the littlest issues.  A cancer diagnosis often overwhelms us. 

We all need to develop ways to control our fear and put it into perspective.  We should not, must not, let our fear block our living our life to its fullest.