Dr. Kim Foster: Wicked Health


The FearLess Project: Facing a Fear of Cancer

What do you fear? Name that fear. Call it out.

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.

So what do you fear?

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.

Click Here to Share Your Fears Now