There’s something about cancer that induces fear in people.
Many, many patients sit themselves down in my office with various symptoms and signs, and if they let me peel away the layers, the actual fear of cancer is at the core of it all. It's their nasty little secret. Sometimes they voice it in a pseudo-joking way, “So I was thinking last night (ha, ha), what if this cough is cancer?” And then they get kind of serious, and the smile becomes a little wooden. “It’s not, though, right? Right?”
But not everyone tells me about this fear. Some people are so terrified of saying the word—as though simply uttering the name can invoke its presence in their lives—a la Voldemort—that it’s left unspoken. And, as a result, unresolved.
The fear of cancer is the proverbial elephant in the room. Actually, I tend to think of it more like a big, ugly spider lurking in the corner of the ceiling.
But you know what’s worse than all these cancer-phobia-motivated visits? The visits I don’t get. The people who do not come to see me because they’re afraid of what I might find.
Because let’s face it. Sometimes, it is cancer.
And I’m sure you know that time is of the essence when it comes to beating this disease. You have to give yourself a fighting chance and get diagnosed early—and then rock and roll with treatment.
We know so much more about cancer now. We’re getting better all the time at preventing, diagnosing, treating, and defeating it. In fact, it’s estimated that half of all cancers are preventable now. And our survival odds are better than ever: over 60% of people survive this disease, compared to 25% in the 1940s. And those survival rates are improving all the time. This is thanks to organizations like the Canadian Cancer Society who has not only funded ground-breaking research but has also advocated, for example, for tobacco laws that protect the health of Canadians.
Cancer is not the death sentence many people think it is.
But in spite of all that, the fear of cancer is huge. A recent study showed that 70% of people in Ontario fear cancer, ahead of many other diseases, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes.
The thing is, if we keep our fears secret and hidden, that’s when they can fester. That’s when they own us. And that’s the real cancer. Especially when that fear stops us from doing the things we should do, like getting checkups and screening tests, talking to a doctor about bothersome symptoms, being proactive and taking steps to prevent cancer in the first place.
So if you’re one of those 70%, how do you vanquish that fear? First, you acknowledge it. You voice it. And then you’ll be in a position to manage and face it.
The Canadian Cancer Society has started a powerful new initiative called The FearLess Project which gives people a place to name the things that terrify them about cancer, and take that first step to addressing their fears.
So what do people fear about cancer?
Dying? Yes, of course, that. Also: dying in pain. Suffering through chemo. Losing a breast. Leaving their kids without a mother (that’s mine, by the way). Missing out on life and never doing the things they always wanted to do.
Everybody has their own fears, and sometimes they’re not what you’d expect.
Ask any oncologist about the initial, panicky thought a woman often has, when she first hears the word cancer. They’ll tell you. It's: “Am I going to lose my hair?” And that is not a trivial thing.
I think the feeling of helplessness is behind much of the terror people experience. The idea that cancer may, one sunny day, call you out randomly. As though you’ve won some gruesome lottery, Hunger Games-esque. And who wouldn’t feel terrified of that?
But the fact is, we’re not that helpless. There’s a lot you can do to help prevent cancer from striking. Like quitting smoking. Maintaining a healthy weight. Wearing sunscreen. Eating cancer-fighting food every day. And more...we’re always discovering new things.
The Canadian Cancer Society is an excellent source of information: you can call them for confidential advice, there's a peer support program and an online community where you can connect with people touched by cancer. Find out about the latest research on cancer, treatment, and prevention. And learn about what you can do to help reduce your risk of cancer.
But it’s going to be hard to learn about, and focus on, those things if you’re too terrified to move.
Is the fear of cancer worse than cancer itself? It may be.
“Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once,” wrote William Shakespeare in Julius Caesar.
I’m so proud to support The FearLess Project. And at YMC we’re going beyond raising awareness. We’re also putting money where our mouths are. For each submitted fear from our community, YMC will donate $1 to the Canadian Cancer Society, up to a total of $1,000.
Name that fear. Call it out. And then, get down to the business of living your life, caring for your health, and not being controlled by a fear of cancer.
We’re asking YMC members to visit www.thefearlessproject.ca to share your fears about cancer.
YMC will donate $1 to the Canadian Cancer Society for every fear shared by YMC members to a maximum of $1,000. Because the best way to deal with our fears is to face them.
This is proudly sponsored by our friends at the Canadian Cancer Society.
Visit the Canadian Cancer Society’s The FearLess Project www.thefearlessproject.ca to share and acknowledge your cancer related fears as a first step to addressing them.
Seems like everyone is talking about going gluten-free these days, when just a few years ago hardly anyone had heard of the word. So, is gluten unhealthy? Are you doing yourself irreparable harm by eating it? Is it the underlying cause of your fatigue? Your gut troubles? Your acne? Your muffin top? The recent rise in allergies?
There’s a lot of confusion out of there. And, let’s just say it, a lot of hype. But it is important to understand what the fuss is about, and whether you should go gluten-free. Because some of us should.
Gluten is a protein. It’s found in certain grains: wheat, rye, barley, and (to a lesser degree) oats. It’s also found in many other foods—processed foods, typically. It’s a thickening agent in many soups and sauces, for example.
Certain people in the population have a condition called celiac disease. (This is not a new thing; Western medicine has known about it for a while. It was first recorded by a Greek physician in the 2nd century, who referred to his patients as “koiliakos”--translated into English as coeliac--which meant “abdominal” or “suffering in the bowels”.) In celiac disease, even trace amounts of gluten will trigger an autoimmune, or inflammatory, response in the lining of the intestine. That inflammation damages the small intestine, which results in abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, weight loss (because nutrients aren’t being properly absorbed) and vitamin and mineral deficiencies (also due to malabsorption).
People with celiac disease absolutely need to go gluten-free. It’s a medical necessity. How do you know if you have celiac? A blood test often confirms the diagnosis, but sometimes an intestinal biopsy is required. If you believe you may have celiac disease, you need to talk to your doctor. You need to be tested. But make sure to do the tests before you self-diagnose and give up gluten on your own. If you get tested after you’ve eliminated gluten from your diet, your tests will not be accurate. This is the kind of thing that can cause a lengthy delay in proper diagnosis.
Celiac disease aside, we’re now beginning to recognize a condition called gluten sensitivity. Some people without full-blown celiac disease can be sensitive to gluten nonetheless. But it’s tricky to diagnose. Regular celiac testing will turn up negative. Symptoms of gluten sensitivity can be anything from bloating and diarrhea to anemia, fatigue, headaches, and more. It’s an emerging field of research, to be sure, but while we’re waiting for answers—what do you do?
Let’s say you get tested for celiac, and the results are negative. But...you’re still wondering if gluten is causing problems for you.
Here’s what you do:
Eliminate gluten from your diet for at least two weeks. And try to keep everything else the same. Record everything you’re eating, and record all your symptoms. You may, in fact, find that you feel better. But here’s the key, here’s the thing you need to do to clinch the diagnosis for yourself: you need to re-challenge with gluten. Re-introduce it into your diet. And keep recording everything you’re eating, and everything you’re feeling. Do that for another two weeks again, at least.
The fact is, when many people cut gluten out of their diets, they naturally tidy up their diets in other ways. They’re feeling healthier and pro-active about their lifestyle, so they’re instinctively reaching for more whole foods, more vegetables and fruits, and steering clear of processed foods (because those are foods that contain that hidden gluten). But this is a healthier way of eating anyway, independent of the gluten issue. And if you’re cleaning up your diet overall, of course you’re going to feel better.
But, if you re-challenge with gluten, and all your old symptoms come back (as long as you haven't simply started gobbling a bunch of processed foods again), then that’s your answer. You don’t need a blood test to tell you what you know. You’ve figured out what works for you.
But if eliminating (and re-introducing) gluten makes no difference for you, either way? Well, gluten is not your issue, and you don't need to worry about trying to go gluten-free.
One caution: if you do reduce, or eliminate, gluten from your diet, you need to do it right. No winging it. Cutting out an important food group could cause nutritional deficiencies in the long run. Whole and enriched grains are important sources of B vitamins, iron, folic acid, and fibre. You need to be sure you’re finding alternate sources of those nutrients. Talk to your doctor, or—even better—a dietitian, who can help guide you through.
Got stress? (Who doesn’t?) Got time to soothe those worries away with regular spa appointments? Or chill out in the bath every night with a good book? Or go for a nice, long daily walk in the woods?
The problem with most of our stress-management tactics: they take too much time! Which is ironic, considering that much of mom-stress comes from not having enough time in the first place.
So here’s a quick stress-detox strategy that will hardly take any time at all:
I know, it sounds overly simplistic. But hear me out.
Breathing exercises and breath awareness are core components of many healthy practices, like yoga and meditation. This is no coincidence. Breathing exercises have been found to be effective for: anxiety disorders, panic attacks, depression, headaches, and fatigue. To name a few.
If you don’t take my word for it, listen to Andrew Weil, MD. He calls breathing “the master key to self-healing.”
So how do you seize the power of this simple tool?
There are many ways to do it, and myriad breathing exercises, but the basic key is abdominal breathing.
Most of us, during the day, breathe using "chest breathing." This is a shallow, relatively less effective way of breathing that merely expands the rib cage to get air in. When something stressful happens, our breathing becomes even more shallow, and often irregular. Our shoulders rise to help pull air into the upper parts of our lungs, but it's a weak effort (and leads to shoulder and neck tension, besides).
The opposite of all that is abdominal, or diaphragmatic breathing. Abdominal breathing uses the diaphragm (a large, sheetlike muscle at the base of our lungs) to fills our lungs more deeply, more fully. First, you need to learn how to do it. Follow these steps:
And that's all there is to it!
Once you know how to breathe using your diaphragm, you can practice abdominal breathing in any posture, sitting or standing. Try to do some abdominal breathing every day, at least twice a day if you can manage it. Use any little irritation during your day (say, long line-up at Starbucks?) as a trigger to practice.
Notice the amazing, calming, warming effect. Abdominal breathing is the simplest and quickest way of accessing the relaxation response. Next time you're in a stressful situation (the phone rings: your accident-prone kid’s school is calling...) try taking three nice, slow abdominal breaths. You'll be surprised at how effective this one small intervention can be.
So how about you? Do you have a quick and easy stress strategy that you use?
If you've got the breathing thing down, and you'd like more stress-busting ideas, read this next.