Monday, April 1, 2013


Today is Day 1 of the 2013 Health Activist Writer's Month Challenge (HAWMC). I took part in the challenge last year, too, so this is my second time at bat. The daily writing process last year was challenging and invigorating yet also very fun. My favorite part was bonding with other breast cancer bloggers. And I hope some of them will join me again this year! The HAWMC challenge forced me to write faster, and more frequently, and since I have trouble with both, it pushes me to be a better blogger. So I'm jumping in again and looking forward to where the month will lead! Let's get to it...

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.

In an attempt to assuage my own festering fears, I dove into the positive thinking movement, fervently believing that breast cancer would not happen to me because I would do everything possible to avoid it. 

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-easeI 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!)

© The Big C and Me
Having been on both sides of the cancer fence, I get why people without cancer might tell people with cancer to think more positive thoughts to keep cancer away or at bay. They think (as did I) that the mind is all powerful, like the Wizard of Oz. But if positive thinking is the cure-all for cancer, then shouldn't is also be the panacea for all tragedy? I mean, if positive thinking works so well, why aren't we employing it to protect everyone in our lives? Why aren't we suggesting to our children that if they think more positively as they cross the street, they can better avert their chances of getting hit by a car? Why aren't we telling our teens to think more positively so they can get better SAT scores? Or encouraging our college students to just think more positively to avoid the freshman 15? And on and on...

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: 
  • Alzheimer's?
  • Cancer?
  • Diabetes?
  • Heart disease?
  • Stroke?
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.

It's not just America that's afraid to get cancer; Britain is too. In a 2011 Cancer Research UK survey of 2,056 Brits, more than a third (35%) of respondents said cancer was the disease they feared getting the mostAnd a 2010 National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative (NAEDI) survey among 2,070 people (also in the U.K.) found that one in five folks feared getting cancer ahead of:
  • Being in debt
  • Growing old
  • Being the victim of knife crime
  • Getting Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Losing their job or their home
And in New Zealand, a 2011 Southern Cross Health Society survey of nearly 1,500 Kiwis with health insurance found that cancer was the most feared health issue, followed by:
  • Brain injury
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Loss of eyesight
Isn't that crazy? Who knew anxiety ran so rampant among people without cancer, let alone those of us who had (or have) it? There must be more to this. So I did a little research on the topic of cancer anxietyand came across a New York Times blog post entitled "Cancer on the Brain" which discusses the correlation between fear and the risk of physical pain and suffering brought about by cancer. 

"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.)
The so-called power of positive thinking can't cure cancer. But maybe there is a way to counter the fear factor of cancer phobia. Only you can decide. I'd love to hear your thoughts/suggestions/solutions...


  1. Hello, this is a great post. Your sister's procedure sounds unbelievable. How are her results? So good to hear she's 30 years since her diagnosis.
    As for your paragraph on running away from cancer. I did everything you listed. Until I was diagnosed with BRCA2 and have in the last couple of weeks, undergone prophylactic bilateral nipple sparing mastectomy. For me I was tired of running.
    Anyway, just wanted to say it's a great post. I too need to go and manage my stress now too Trisha x

    1. Thanks Trisha, I just read your blog and am so sorry to hear about your complications! I can relate, as I've had my fair share! Am following you back on Twitter. ;-) Hang in there, I hope you get to go home from hospital soon!

  2. Fascinating that more people fear cancer than Alzheimers. I wonder if it is because cancer is so well advertised/featured, and therefore people 'know' it more? Even though I've had cancer (and do worry about recurrence), I dread Alzheimer's more than anything else. But that's most likely because I saw my grandfather degrade with the disease, and it was a terrible thing. ~Catherine

    1. Catherine, I think that's part of it, that cancer has been "over-talked" about. But, I still dreaded getting cancer above all else. Sometimes I think it was my intuition in denial! I'm sorry your grandfather had Alzheimers. That is its own nightmare. {{{hugs}}}

  3. Oh Renn, first of all, I am so glad to hear your sister is doing great. I had the DIEP flap but without any complications or infections.
    I never had that fear of cancer. I really didn't. I foolishly assumed it was the thing that happened to other women - those who had a relative with cancer or those who didn't show up for the mammograms. I have always been afraid of Alzheimers or being trapped in my own body. Now I'm just afraid of the cancer spreading. And positive thinking? I'm over it too. Way over it. In fact, now that you bring it up, why didn't it work those freshman 15 or menopausal 10 off. For good. :-)
    Great post, Renn!!! So glad we'll be reconnecting for at least a month this year :-)

    1. Yvonne, as I said to Catherine above, I kinda think my untold fear of cancer was my intuition in denial. For I stayed in that place of denial a very long time... right up until, and even after, my biopsy. The mind is very powerful, all right. And it has a "mind" of its own! Looking forward to sharing the HAWMC challenge with you! Thanks for the laugh on the menopausal 10!!

  4. Renn, I love this post! Like you, I did all the "right stuff." I thought positive, I worked on my inner self, forgave those who wronged me and was overall conscious in taking care of myself spiritually, emotionally and physically. I've been eating healthy for years ... and even though cancer is in my family, I really believed I would never get it because of the way I lived. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Yeah, it happened, and I'm way over that one. I think all you can do is, yes, do the "right" things in case any of it helps, but know that some things are out of your control ... and just don't worry about it unless and until you have something to worry about.

    1. "Some things are out of our control." So true! Thanks for commenting, Eileen!

  5. Renn, I love the idea of positive thinking, however; like you I agree that positive thinking does not stop cancer or any other disease or tragedy than can befall us...

    Staying positive is good for us but it doesn't solve all of our issues in life:)

    I look forward to you blogging more often this month, I always learn so much from you :)

    1. Thanks Launna, it always makes me smile to see your comments!

      Life has its own trajectory, that's for sure!

  6. hi friends of renn!
    it's me, childhood friend of renn.

    to me...the kind of "positive thinking" of a stuart smalley is not what i consider positive's phoney, shallow, and basically b.s. and i think many positive thinkers, would deny being that kind of positive thinker....but often i think that's very near to as deep as it goes.

    to be fair, however, i have to say that whatever makes you a happy and kind person....even if it is a "smalley" kind of not for me to judge. just like all the religions in the long as the main idea is the "Golden Rule" then im all for it! it's the hypocrisy that often kills it for me.

    the kind of P.T-ing that i find myself attracted what lies within my own personal belief system about how the world works...kind of like my own version of spirituality.

    i dont BELIEVE that P.T-ing is going to prevent anything from happening to me or my loved mother still died of cancer, my friends and family still have hardships and losses,
    i still lost my sense of self a few yrs ago....

    but there is something deep inside of me....that truly only surfaced as a result of going through that loss only a few yrs ago.... that i can define as knowing...for will all be okay...and it doesnt include knowing the specific outcome....just that it will all be okay.

    i am one of the lucky ones, as i do not have the BIG C....but who knows what is brewing inside of this chocoholic!? who knows what will be my Achilles Heel (or "Heal")...

    all i that in this moment...everything will be okay.
    love you renn.


Your comments are encouraging — and encouraged!