Off topic maybe but...does anyone know anything about Cancer Phobia?

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Disce Pati
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Date Joined Apr 2008
Total Posts : 61
   Posted 8/14/2008 9:47 AM (GMT -6)   

Recently I had a discussion with friends, spouse etc about the phenomenon of having a high degree of anxiety about developing cancer. I almost wrote "unwarranted" or "unreasonable" fear but after some thought I am not sure that those words are entirely accurate. I mean, it seems that we really cannot refute the high incidence of cancer and this is one disease that seems to be highly visible - in the media, through personal experiences and in many other ways. I know that for most people, myself included, that any ache / pain / puzzling symptom seems always to be accompanied by that fleeting thought: "could it be the big C"? But for me, it is usually just that, a thought that is quickly suppressed.

However, I know that some people are not as successful at putting this in perspective - and no doubt, there is reason to have a heightened awareness of this disease so it can be caught early. But it seems to me that the trade-off between all the advice given for self-screening and being aware of the signs and symptoms is that we have created either real or pseudo-phobias. I think (?) there is even a formal mental health diagnostic code for cancer phobia (?).

My questions are: do you handle this personally - that is, how do you keep fears / concerns at a reasonable level? (keeping in mind individual risk factors etc) and
2. if you have a good friend who seems to be obsessing over this fear - to the point of this taking over his / her life, how would you support him or her? Is it appropriate to bring up the idea that they may be suffering from a phobia? Iit seems hard to find the balance of reassuring that cancer is NOT as pervasive as all the hype leads us to believe....but at the same time, there is no doubt that it is one of the most common serious illnesses out there and that, for suret, early detection (before it spreads) is the best way to save lives. But unfortunately detecting most cancers early is not something that we have a sure-fire test for, so to end up reacting to every ache / pain / or abnormal function, while it may end up being early stage cancer, most of the time it is just "normal" variation of health. Advising someone to wait until alarm symptoms to appear creates the risk that the person has missed the opportunity for a cure.

Has anyone ever experienced this phenomenon? either personally or supported a friend who seems to have a high degree of fear of cancer? are there any ways to counter this? to get the person to either form coping skills or to establish a more realistic outlook on living with the possibility that yes, some day you MAY face this horrible disease but for now, you must live your life as it comes?

Thanks as always!

Disce Pati (LearnToEndure)

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Date Joined Jan 2005
Total Posts : 9090
   Posted 8/14/2008 11:10 AM (GMT -6)   
Hi Disce Pati,

This type of intense fear is like any other irrational fear and needs to be dealt with professionally. There is no reason to live your life fearing something for no good reason. More people die of cardiovascular disease than cancer. You could be hit by a train next week. Your house could catch on fire during the night. Sure, there are lots of things that 'could' happen to use in life but a rational person wouldn't let is be the focus of their existence.

Your friend needs counseling and now! If they are even talking about self harm then this is way out of control and needs to be dealt with before something serious does really happen. Please get this person some help! Talk to their family and get them involved. This is not something to mess with or try to do yourself. Please get this person professional care.

Keep us posted,
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Disce Pati
Regular Member

Date Joined Apr 2008
Total Posts : 61
   Posted 8/14/2008 12:45 PM (GMT -6)   
Hi Chutz,

Thanks for your reply; I agree that it is a somewhat irrational fear - exactly like you mentioned (the chance for other calamities like car accidents etc that could also happen at any time, but that most people are not usually terrified of driving).

But I think you mis-understood part of my post....The scenario I mentioned is not that the person is looking to end his life (take his life) but that this fear is taking over his / her life; that is, s/he sometimes is at the point when every odd "hiccup" in her body is a sign that s/he has cancer and that all the CTs, MRIs, x-rays, blood tests and physical exams that have been done has just not been good enough to find it; or that a growth has occurred in short months since the last CT or MRI was done.

Reassuring a person who is in the throes of this intense fear is very tricky. No doubt there are reasons to be aware of your risk factors, and no doubt we are inundated by all the tragic news of media stars or personal friends, and family that are fighting or dying from cancer, so it is easy to imagine yourself in their place - so there is a need to address the possibility that s/he is right - that someday s/he really may develop cancer, but............but the chances over a life time are relatively low, and that in her / his stage of life it is even less likely; and that there are more important things in life to worry about. The problem is I don't want to appear to brush-off her anxiety, even though that is my instinct: to downplay the situation or to be cynical and say it is inevitable so just enjoy what you have today, etc...And unfortunately, putting his / her fears to a higher power is not something that this person is comfortable with either. I think it is an issue of wanting to control every aspect of his / her life and knowing that this is one thing that cannot be controlled is adding to the degree of fear. I guess it is hard for me to offer meaningful support to someone who cannot accept that certain things are beyond our control and that you have to have accept fate with grace, whatever fate you may face.

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Date Joined Nov 2007
Total Posts : 6795
   Posted 8/14/2008 1:05 PM (GMT -6)   
Dear Disci,
I would agree with Chutz that a good mental health evaluation is in order. From what you're describing the fear may be too extreme, even for the "average" person. Yes, there are mental illness diagnostic categories, although they are not specific to cancer, per se, but whether it's a phobia or another type of disorder it needs to be evaluated. For some people, there is a rationale behind it in that if they had a relative die of say, ovarian cancer, at age 40, and they are now turning 40 the fear may be intensified. On the other hand a generlized fear of cancer that becomes immobilizing is not normal or healthy. And we all have to remember it's really not "cancer" but "cancerS". There are many forms, and many are highly curable, such as cervical cancer, when caught early. So for most of us doing the screening procedures that are there, and learning then to life with the fact we cannot control everything that happens to us in life (hey, shouldn't we hear on this forum know that more than most?!) is now most of us manage. It sounds to me like your friend isn't in that category, or you wouldn't be writing.

If you have more questions I'll try to answer, but best is to see if your friend will go to a good therapist for an evaluation. And as Chutz says, if there's any mention of self-harm at all, get them to crisis resources like an E.R.

Another great resource I've used with people is a workbook called The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund Bourne, Ph.D. Can be bought online (many used editions out there) for a few dollars or you can get the newest edition. The first chapters help an individual to do a little self-assessment regarding anxiety and phobia, and then there are many good exercises to that people can use to help themselves based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). But sometimes a serious anxiety disorder needs more than therapy; may need assistance of medication but that's why a good assessment is important.

Hope this helps some.


Disce Pati
Regular Member

Date Joined Apr 2008
Total Posts : 61
   Posted 8/15/2008 5:18 PM (GMT -6)   
HI Marmite,

I love your definition of fear and I think I will use this often; I think it sums up the whole concept very well. And I completely understand your two fear scenarios. They both boil down to my fear issues and what I find hardest about chronic pain and chronic pancreatitis: Loss of control. And I think that this is what is behind my friend's fear - loss of control about knowing his future. And I do not think that he realizes that in a way, by definition, a future cannot be controlled. I think that any idea of "you are in control of your future" or "take control of your future" etc is an oxymoron in a way. The future, by definition. is unknowable I think therefore uncontrollable - at least to the degree that we may want. I guess that is where having peace with fate - however the individual defines it (my personal definition is faith in a higher power) - anyways having peace with fate is what gets a person through the daily uncertainties.

In a case of cancer phobia I think the rational comeback is what Chutz mentioned - that every day is full of risks but that doesn't paralyze us from doing what we need to do and these risks do not take over our inner dialog.

I want to share with you the situation that I think describes a person who personalizes the risk in a somewhat irrational way - where a person gets off track from the normal assessment of personal signs and symptoms - this is an example that I was given when I brought this subject up with others:

the person with a cancer-phobia-like personality wakes up one morning with a stomach ache. He acknowledges the ache and thinks back on what he ate or what activity he may have done the last few days that could cause it; but at this point it is "no big deal". During the day the stomach ache is still there, he starts to focus on it more. He decides to google his symptoms and finds out that one out of many possible explanations is stomach cancer. At this point he notices that his stomach pain is a little worse. Now he pays more attention to the pain - trying to figure out what makes it worse, what makes it better; seeing if time of day makes a difference, etc. At this point the pain is pretty much always on his mind; and the fact that it could signify a stomach cancer. So now he starts calling his doctor trying to get an emergency CT because he needs to rule out cancer. The doctors do not see his S&S as an urgent problem (he has recently been evaluated for similar S&Ss intensely - by many different experts across the specialities - with very comprehensive blood work, radiology, physical exams etc). However, because these exams were concluded about three to four months ago, he cannot help but wonder if this recurrence of stomach pain means that the "hidden" tumor (that is a tumor that was too small to be seen at the time of the exams) is now large enough to be detected. So he gets anxious when the docs are not willing to rush him into a new examination situation. ......

So where i think he loses his logic is when the word "Cancer" shows up on the google search. I think it is quite normal for most people to google signs and symptoms that persist and are bothersome. And I believe that it is absolutely normal for a person to have the pain on their minds for the whole time that the elevated pain is present (at least those who haven't learned the need to deal with a chronic pain concition - and learned all the tricks of coping). But what I think deviates from most people (and I could be wrong here) is when the person virtually panics and convinces himself that the only or the biggest possibility for his persistent stomach pain is cancer - even when there are other, much more likely possibilities - from something as simple as indigestion to ulcers to gall bladder disease. But previous exams have ruled all of this out - no ulcers, no crohn's, no gall bladder disease, etc. So the docs say most likely a type of viral gastro-enteritis....but the patient thinks that it just has to be cancer that hasn't yet been found - a very, very remote possibility, and rejects the viral gastroenteritis idea - a much more likely culprit. And then it becomes a viscious cycle: you have stomach pain, you worry, you get more pain, because it is now persistent / chronic you worry more because with the pain not going away it just can't be a simple viral tummy ache. So you get even more convinced that it is cancer that the docs haven't found. And it goes on and on.

Like you said, Marmite - it is a situation of self-fullfilling prophecy at this point.

So somewhere in this scenario is the personality trait of the phobic person which makes him latch onto the cancer diagnosis, when other more rational people will recognize that this is a remote possibility......

But then, because I try to see all sides of a story, my mind goes on to wonder if those people who I call more rational are actually burying their heads in the sand? that is, are they the ones who always think "it can't happen to me"? Like all the people I see at my profession who are amazed when they are diagnosed with a cancer - saying " yea I have smoked 5 packs of cigarettes a day for the last 40 years but I NEVER thought it could happen to me!". So how do you teach a person to have a more realistic outlook on the possibility of cancer being the cause of non-specific aches and pains? On one hand you have those people who SHOULD be concerned and ignore their symptoms until the tumor is literally bulging from their body (which we have seen) and on the other hand there are those who think every ache and pain is deadly cancer. It is a conundrum that I think is very complex and probably much more common than we think.

So Marmite, you got me rambling too.......and probably not of much interest to anyone else.

Regular Member

Date Joined Feb 2005
Total Posts : 369
   Posted 8/17/2008 3:03 PM (GMT -6)   
Hi, I hope your friend is able to find peace! He should be encouraged to seek counceling. The fear he is having is WAY beyond normal. Maybe he falls into a hypochondriac (sp) type thing????

I can only tell you my experience....My mother had breast cancer at age 30, she had a masectomy. SIX MONTHS later, she was diagnosed with a second and different cancer in her other breast. Again had a masectomy. The doctors at the time had never seen two different cancers at the same time before. She recovered and survived. Her sister got breast cancer at age 35 and passed away at age 38 as a result of cancer spreading. Their mother (my grandmother) had a early stage cancer removed, and my first cousin was just diagnosed w/ breast cancer at age 40.

I am age 35, and am TERRIFIED of breast cancer. I feel like it may even be my demise. I have already had two lumps removed, after biopsy showed a-typ cells, both benign thankfully. I think about it often and am even going for the genetic testing and if that is positive, i will elect to have a elective profatic masectomy. Is this over the top? I don't know, but i can tell you that i don't have thoughts of it consuming me all the time. I will say that if i find something funny in my breast, i do become worried, but i don't automatcially think it is breast cancer.

If your friend is really worried, maybe they could have one of those total body scans?

Anyways, just wanted to share my experience, hope it helps put prespective on how much your friend is being "over" worried when there is no history or proven problem.
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Regular Member

Date Joined May 2008
Total Posts : 177
   Posted 8/17/2008 9:37 PM (GMT -6)   
Only professional psychiatric help will solve / ease the problem. Historical fact: Hitler had cancer phobia (his mother died from cancer). He wanted to create extensive legislation to fight cancer like lowering chemical emissions in industrial zones, anti-tobacco laws, etc. Never really amounted to much due to World War II also being on is agenda.
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Disce Pati
Regular Member

Date Joined Apr 2008
Total Posts : 61
   Posted 8/18/2008 1:44 PM (GMT -6)   
Thanks for the info, Shannon and Morgoth.

I think the perspective you offered, Shannon is a very good one. I wish there was a way that I could use it to get my friend to see how people facing higher risks can cope and gain confidence by using knowledge and common sense to evaluate the actual reality and plan for possible future events. Basically I see that as a healthy way to merge "fate" ( a realization that what will be, will be) and "control" (the ability to use what power we have to take charge of our future).

I appreciate that your decision is a hard one and that there will be much agonizing over it. And that there will be times when nothing but this issue will be on your mind. But I think that is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation in your case. There is no dispute that if there is any reason to have a justifiable "cancer phobia" your situation is it and I am impressed that you are calmly (and thoroughly) considering your options. You have educated yourself about red flags, you have an immediate plan of action and are working on the long-term management; everything that I wish my friend could value. That is the approach I am trying to lay-out for my friend. To allay his immediate fears and to empower him by giving him knowledge of what he can do if the worse becomes the worst. I guess I am trying to instill the "hope for the best but plan for the worst"philosophy so he can then put it all out of hisr mind until he needs to access that plan, if ever. Thank you for sharing a very personal part of your life. It has certainly given me a basis to combat some of his fears I think.

Morgoth: I am very familiar with the life and philosophy of Adolph Hitler (he has been the object of my personal research for the last 10 years of my life). Ironic that you have mentioned it. Hopefully that is the only thing that my friend has in common with Herr Hitler! I am sure you are not implying that all cancer phobics are evil closet tyrants and murderers ( smilewinkgrin - Although I have to caution that I do not think Hitler and **** germany should ever be taken as a joke; it is a very serious manifestation of what can happen to any country / people if the conditions allow it, I think; I just wanted you to know that I was joking about you linking my friend with Hitler; Right now I am studying the battles in the Netherlands - Fall 1944; I am in Arnhem / Niemegen - I think a little closer geographically to you than to me).
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