Carcinophobia is a hysterical fear of cancer. Even though we’re all aware that cancer is a relatively common illness in our society, it can, on an individual level, cause much distress. Carcinophobia is one of the isolated phobia (fear) types, which is somehow associated with something we have once, or perhaps recently, experienced, heard, seen or read. For example, a woman visits a doctor fearing for the health of her breasts, because her friend was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, her mother-in-law died of breast cancer a while ago, someone at work also mentioned a recent diagnosis, a famous person has announced their diagnosis or she recently saw a film about this topic (such as “Ma-Ma” starring Penelope Cruz). In many cases, this fear can be logically explained and is sometimes even justified, especially if, for example, someone is waiting for the results of a biopsy. Other times, there is little justification, but the anxiety is genuine. On the one hand, this can have a positive effect by motivating people to visit a doctor for a check-up. There are, however, cases when this fear literally paralyzes someone causing sleepless nights full of negative thoughts and worst-case scenarios well before the person decides to finally visit their doctor. This agony is even prolonged if the person is forced to wait for an appointment or an examination. Carcinophobia, like any other phobia, can make a person feel threatened, which can even lead to physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, heart palpitations, increased sweating, nausea, confusion, insomnia, agitation, tearfulness, dry mouth, headaches, etc. People often complain that they can’t find peace and feverishly search the internet for an illness that matches their fears and feelings, becoming so obsessed with the idea that they could have cancer that they’re family life and careers suffer. In some cases, carcinophobia becomes a defence mechanism for some unresolved emotional conflict. Men are often more rational, visiting a doctor to ask for an examination, which will determine for sure if they have cancer. Sometimes patients are even prepared to spend money on particularly expensive tests to discover the truth. Here we’re essentially dealing with people who are tormented by the idea of cancer and it goes without saying that they can be difficult to talk to. My older colleagues once warned me that I should be very careful when dealing with genuine carcinophobia sufferers and to thoroughly investigate their cases because, God forbid, they actually do have cancer. Then they’ll blame you for not listening to their intuition earlier and for attempting to convince them of their folly.
Thoughts of cancer occasionally enter our heads. A recent study in England revealed that roughly one third of people aren’t very concerned about cancer, while the majority think about cancer from time to time or are very concerned about the potential physical pain and the emotional stress this illness can cause, as well as the possibility of death. Nearly one half of those polled worried about surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, the social stigma, financial problems and the loss of control over themselves and their illness. Younger people, especially women, were more concerned about the possibility of becoming ill and not knowing how that would affect their physical, emotional and social well-being. Many times the seed of carcinophobia is sown by listening to deep-rooted societal opinions about cancer in general – stories about completely worn-out patients who can’t be cured and who end up dying in great pain. Sufferers of carcinophobia often have an irrational fear that their loved ones might also become ill and often urge their doctors to examine family members or to have them sent to specialists.
The stigma of cancer in our society
The stigma of cancer is a serious threat to society and in many places destigmatization, or targeted positive propaganda, decreases carcinophobia. The opposite is happening in Latvia right now. In recent years, a conspicuous campaign of negative cancer propaganda has been perpetrated by certain journalists and media outlets, which even some oncologists have supported – dilapidated rooms, old equipment and seemingly ancient medications. This methodical deception of the masses claims that nothing can be done here and that we don’t have the resources, especially for extremely expensive innovative drugs. You don’t have to be clairvoyant to understand who’s behind this. But people worry all the same. Recently in Baltics media article “Half of women don’t attend cancer screenings” was published emphasising the negative (look how irresponsible our nation’s women are), despite the fact that the article later mentions that screening visits have significantly increased throughout the country. A person is first and foremost influenced by the title and only then decides whether or not to read the rest of the text. How does this title motivate people to attend cancer screenings? I agree that journalists are more attracted to sensational information than something positive, yet ordinary. However, when speaking to my patients they often refer to items they’ve read in the press and ask me about the possibility of seeking treatment abroad, because no one, most likely, will be able to help them in Latvia. Why should I go to a cancer screening if half of women don’t? In addition, this negative propaganda about cancer and these melodramatic sob stories only fan the flames of carcinophobia, because there is so much fear – I won’t get the latest drugs, there’s no money here, no precise diagnostics or proper treatment methods and the doctors lack empathy.
Where to find help?
The methods are numerous and everyone has to see what suits them best, but the good news is that carcinophobia can be treated. Not unlike other things, we most often fear what we do not understand. Therefore, the more informed you are about the illness and the ways you can potentially avoid it or treat it, the less these irrational fears and prejudices will control your mind and emotions. Long-term anxiety, even in the case of carcinophobia, can be harmful. Long-term stress can be harmful to our bodies in a variety of ways.
You should begin with your general practitioner (GP). You should clearly state your fears to him and, if possible, explain your reasons (for example, a recent diagnosis in the family, a disturbing film, a news report or an article you read). Depending on your gender and age, the doctor will probably ask if you have any specific symptoms or complaints, some of which you may not have even thought about earlier. It’s possible that the doctor will also recommend an examination or even a visit to an oncologist. In any event, I would like to stress that there are no tests that would definitively indicate a tumour when a patient has no symptoms. GP will investigate within his area of expertise or send you to another specialist (a gynaecologist, urologist, etc.). If it’s revealed that one of your complaints is suspicious enough or if the test results show something that should be clarified, you’ll be added to the so-called “Green Corridor” and immediately assigned an oncologist. People often ask about tumour markers. With only rare exceptions, tumour markers are not usually used as an initial diagnostic tool for detecting cancer. This is why it’s completely understandable why some women might begin to panic if, for instance, their ovarian cancer marker (CA125) is slightly elevated, yet their gynaecologist asserts that everything is fine. There is obviously a reason for concern. In this situation I would recommend she repeat the test in another 3 weeks and then consult her gynaecologist again or seek another opinion. Similarly, men are often concerned about having elevated PSA levels, especially if their urologist urges them to be patient and to wait and see if the levels change over time.
If the alarm or depression is very acute then a psychotherapist can help. Treatment can be simple dialogue or perhaps even medication or antidepressants prescribed by a doctor. It’s possible that speaking frankly with a specialist may allow you to better understand the root cause of your misgivings and help you to assess your attitude.
Group activities, which are organised by several organizations, communities and patient associations, are another option for assuaging your concerns. These activities are usually meant for current or former cancer patients, but the psychotherapists or social workers who attend the meetings will certainly offer their help.
An oncologist can help you understand how well-founded your concerns might be by assessing your complaints and performing the necessary examinations. An oncologist can also recommend how you should proceed in the future by, for example, letting you know how often to visit a doctor, which specialists are necessary and what tests should be completed. Unfortunately, there have been cases when people have visited all kinds of doctors over the course of a year only to have their tumour diagnosed at a late stage. These are heart-breaking stories that don’t inspire much confidence in some medical professionals. In a situation like this, if you have specific symptoms of an illness and are concerned that they could be linked to cancer, I recommend you see a different doctor.
Hypnosis is one of the most common and effective long-term methods for treating a variety of phobias including carcinophobia, provided that the patient has already undergone tests that have ruled out a diagnosis of cancer. This is often most effective for people who haven’t experienced any suspicious complaints or symptoms, but have had a negative experience related to cancer (the recent diagnosis of a colleague or the death of a loved one).
Neuro-linguistic programming is a modern method that can offer help. The world has many experienced specialists in this field and it’s definitely worth a consultation with them. It’s a method that restarts your restless mind and teaches you not to be afraid of certain things, such as cancer, when there is no real threat.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is another effective method of non-drug therapy designed to prevent mental health problems and to minimise disruptive symptoms (in this instance – hysterical fear). Although its seeds were planted quite some time ago, the rapid and systematic use of cognitive behavioural therapy began in millenium. Search for the most appropriate specialist and make an appointment. This method will allow you to better understand how realistic your fears are and how best to respond to them with the least impact on your health.
It’s true that many of the sources of help that I mentioned are not sponsored by the state, but it’s better to force yourself to visit a specialist than to wait until your fears and anxiety have affected your well-being and become a threat to your everyday life. Sometimes a frank discussion with a loved one or a doctor who comes highly recommended by a family member can be quite helpful. The most important thing is to be ready to talk about the fears that cause you anxiety.