Breast Cancer Fears: What Are You Afraid Of?

Patient Expert

Fear. Even the word elicits a reaction: a slight prickle of the skin, a tiny tremor in the gut. We "fear fear;" we don't want to go there. And yet, with cancer" we must.

Years ago, even the word "cancer" provoked more than fear: terror and horror were common emotions. You'll still hear some people today refer to "the c word" or "the big C," unwilling to even pronounce the word for fear of" what? Catching cancer? Embarrassing those who have it? Or is it just a battered old superstition, "out of sight, out of mind"-if I ignore it, cancer won't find me?

These days, there's much less to fear about cancer. Cure rates, particularly for breast cancer, have risen dramatically. Even women with incurable cancer are often able to stay in remission for long stretches. Every day we get closer and closer to the time when cancer is a chronic disease, like diabetes. We treat it and live with it, the key word being "live." Still, there's no doubt that cancer causes fear in the great majority of us, whether we have it, or dread getting it.

For everyone out there living with cancer, congratulations You've eliminated what was probably one of your chief fears: getting cancer. Now, let's look at some other common cancer fears, and see how you might defuse them a bit.

Fear of the Unknown: Not knowing what to expect is probably one of the first fears you experience with cancer. Up till now, radiation and chemo and mastectomy have simply been words, stuff that happens to other women. Sure, you know what they are; but you don't know how they feel, what they look like, how long they take, and what they do to your appearance.

Defuse it! Speak to other women farther along the treatment path. Ask at your health-care center to be hooked up with someone who's had the same treatment; many hospitals already have a "friend" or "buddy" program already in place. Ask about it. Every well-written cancer pamphlet on the rack can't replace talking with someone who's been there.

Fear of Death: This, of course, is the first and longest-lasting fear. While huge strides have been made in cancer treatment, it's still a dangerous disease; and yes, you might die. But statistically speaking, you probably won't.

You'll hear all kinds of statistics as you go through treatment: radiation reduces your risk of recurrence "X" percent; there's an "Y" percent cure rate for your kind of cancer. But here's your bottom line: about 15% of women with breast cancer die from it. That's about 1 in 7.

Defuse it! If someone told you you had a 1 in 7 chance of winning the lottery, you wouldn't quit your job and book a flight to Bali, would you? Don't think of death as claiming 1 in 7 of us; think of life as keeping 6 of 7.

Fear of Pain: It's the rare person who doesn't fear pain. Thankfully, breast cancer generally isn't very painful. Sure, the treatment can be uncomfortable; and recovery from surgery requires some painkillers. You may get a "sunburn" from radiation, mouth sores from chemo, aching joints from after-care drugs. But crushing, constant, long-term pain? It's not a hallmark of breast cancer, as it is in some other cancers.

Defuse it! Any pain from breast cancer should be very treatable. Try to put this particular fear out of your head.

Fear of Change: Another constant in our lives. While some of us embrace change, the majority would prefer to keep things just as they are. There's comfort in the sameness of life, in the "known."

Well, when you have cancer, you're forced to change, to strike out into the unknown. Your breast will be amended in some way: scarred, or removed. Your hair may fall out. Your schedule will need to include long stretches of treatment, and you may have to miss work. Your family will see you differently; relationships may change.

Defuse it! Change isn't necessarily a bad thing. Many women, once they're through it, laud cancer for giving them the kick they needed to change their lives-for the better. Your original breast may be gone, it's true, but that'll give you the opportunity to shape your new one just the way you want, through reconstruction, an implant, or a breast form. Your hair will grow back. You may work fewer hours, and in the process discover you were messing around with a lot of stuff that just wasn't critical. And your relationships, forged in the fire of adversity, may be stronger than ever. Yes, change is a challenge: but great challenges can result in great rewards. Welcome it; embrace it. Change is indeed good.