There is massive fear surrounding the word "cancer" and no amount of positive thinking can dispel it. I am positively over positive thinking. Let me explain.
Back in the New-Agey 1980s, I became an ardent believer in the power of the mind. It started after my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 31. A wife and mom of three young kids, she was the first in our family to be diagnosed with cancer, and it was devastating and random and mind-blowing news. My sis researched her options, then lobbied for a bilateral mastectomy (very unusual back then), believing she could reduce her risk of recurrence if she removed both breasts. Her doctors eventually agreed to the procedure. Then she underwent six months of chemotherapy.
One year post diagnosis, she had reconstruction using the latest surgical advancement of the time. Her surgeon was a pioneer in the "Superior Gluteal Microvascular Free Flap" method, taking muscle and fat from her buttocks and reattaching it to her chest wall to create breast mounds — made of her own tissue (no implants involved). It was a ghastly surgery (14 hours) and she was in the hospital a month (in part due to an infection she picked up while there).
As one of the first women to have the gluteal procedure done bilaterally, my sister was followed and photographed and written up in medical journals and even interviewed on TV. She spoke with countless women who were contemplating this new technique of using one's own tissue. She was able to channel some of her unsettling feelings about having cancer into helping her physician establish protocols for this kind of reconstruction.
So I stopped eating red meat, took healthy cooking classes, then became a vegetarian. I increased my workouts, running in 5ks, then 10ks, and eventually a marathon. When my knees started to complain, I switched to strenuous classes at the gym six days a week. I took up meditation, went to a psychic and even had my aura read. And then I read all the books I could get my shaky little hands on about how I could change the course of my life to avoid dis-ease. I truly believed (had to!) that if I believed enough, I could escape my sister's fate.
But cancer doesn't work that way. I ended up getting breast cancer anyway, but (interestingly) not the same kind as my sister; mine was hormone positive; my sister's was not. (I should also note here that it has been nearly 30 years since her diagnosis and she is doing great!)
We all experience "cancerophobia." Someone gets sick, and we immediately worry the same thing will befall us. For some, cancer becomes their reality; for others, it remains a hard-and-fast fear. And as a fear, cancer is considered by many people to be the scariest thing that could ever happen to them. To wit: In a recent Metlife survey, 1,007 American respondents were asked which of the following diseases they were most afraid of getting:
- Heart disease?
Guess which one won out? Cancer. A full 41% of people surveyed feared getting cancer more than they feared Alzheimers (31%), heart disease (8%), stroke (8%) or diabetes (6%). I find that pretty shocking, and yet I so relate.
- Being in debt
- Growing old
- Being the victim of knife crime
- Getting Alzheimer’s Disease
- Losing their job or their home
- Brain injury
- Heart attack
- Loss of eyesight
"Physical risks... have psychological characteristics that make them feel scarier or less scary, regardless of actual probability or evidence," says the author, David Ropiek. "Cancer triggers a couple of the most powerful of these emotional alarms." In the field of decision and risk, "the more pain and suffering a risk involves, the more fear it causes."
We know cancer can cause enormous pain and suffering; we've seen it in others and we've experienced it ourselves. So the risk is very real — hence the fear. "We are also more afraid of risks we can’t control," Ropiek continues. "Despite great medical progress, most people still feel they have little control over cancer — either getting it or fighting it."
Ah, control. The root of all anxiety. "As soon as we hear the word [cancer]," Ropiek explains, "subconsciously all sorts of bad and frightening associations go off which frame how we think and how we feel about anything else we then learn."
And that, dear reader, is the stuff of which nightmares are made.
Ropiek writes of what he knows; he is a cancer survivor, as well as a man who has lost people he cared about to the disease. "Cancer phobia is powerfully rooted in the deep instinctive ways we perceive and respond to risk," he says. "Like many forms of cancer itself, [Cancer phobia] hard to overcome."
The National Cancer Institute has some pretty interesting info on the topic of psychological stress and cancer (for the complete article, click here). Their two main points summarize the fear factors that so many of us already know to be true:
- Psychological stress alone has not been found to cause cancer, but psychological stress that lasts a long time may affect a person’s overall health and ability to cope with cancer.
- People who are better able to cope with stress have a better quality of life while they are being treated for cancer, but they do not necessarily live longer. (The second half of that sentence SUCKS.)