When you browse through the new Q & A section of this Web site, you’ll see a common theme: "I think I have breast cancer." Usually couched as a description of symptoms, each question ends with a variation of "Should I be worried?" And each time I get to the final line of another plea for help, I desperately want to reach out and give you a hug. Instead I offer information, words that I hope will disarm those scary thoughts that wake you up at 2 o’clock in the morning.
I’m really happy when I can reassure you that your symptoms are probably NOT breast cancer. "Doesn’t sound like anything to worry about, as far as cancer is concerned. But get it checked out anyway, just to set your mind at ease." And sometimes the answer isn’t as straightforward: "An inverted nipple is a possible sign of breast cancer. You’d best call the doctor to see what’s up." And occasionally, there’s just not much doubt: "Yes, if you’re going in to get your biopsy result and they want you to bring someone with you, it’s probably not good news."
Each of you, no matter your symptoms, is afraid of breast cancer. And some of you are desperately afraid. That’s only natural; but speaking as a survivor, I’d like to let you in on a secret: the fear of cancer is probably as bad as the disease itself. Once you have it, you can breathe a huge sigh of relief. “Whew, I don’t have to worry about getting cancer anymore I’ve got it" And, after a few days, a week, several weeks” you pull yourself together and take those first hesitant steps on the road back to health.
So, how can you NOT fear cancer? By understanding that this particular enemy can be disarmed. If you suddenly feel a lump in your breast, there’s no need to panic if you can’t get a doctor’s appointment the very next day. It’s not like you have the Ebola virus or polio or a swift killer of some kind. Breast cancer (aside from the inflammatory variety) is a pretty slow mover. Can’t see the doctor till next week? No openings available till 10 days from now? Don’t stress; if that lump you feel in your breast is cancer, it’s probably been growing for years. Another week won’t mean the difference between life and death.
Another thing to remember: cancer isn’t the killer it used to be. The large majority of women who get breast cancer survive it. We’re all going to die sometime; but most of us with breast cancer will die of something else. So statistically speaking, breast cancer probably won’t kill you. And as research continues, the percentage of women who survive will grow.
One big reason so many women are afraid of breast cancer is fear of the unknown. "If I get breast cancer, and I have to do chemo, how awful will it be? Will my hair fall out? And what about those tattoos I heard you have to get for radiation? Will surgery disfigure me?" Here’s an easy way to defuse your fears: stay connected on this site. Use the search box to read up on anything and everything related to breast cancer. Ask a direct question; we’ll answer you. That’s what we’re here for.
And finally, there’s the scariest thing of all: self doubt. “I don’t think I’m strong enough to go through all that”" Well, guess what? You ARE strong enough. You’re just as strong as you need to be. Of all the hundreds of women I’ve known with breast cancer, not a single one has thrown in the towel at the time of diagnosis, during treatment, or even after a recurrence. We simply keep moving forward, putting cancer behind us.
Are you afraid of breast cancer? Feel your anxiety, but realize you’re not helpless. You can disarm your fear: right now, right here. Look for help: I promise you’ll find it.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.