Caring Currents

How to Cope With Cancer Fear

Last updated: Jul 28, 2009

Image by Dyanna used under the creative commons attribution no derivs license.

Sad and scary cancer announcements have come fast and furious the past couple of weeks. Yesterday, beloved Philadelphia Eagles coach Jim Johnson lost his battle with metastatic melanoma at the age of 68. Younger fans were horrified last week when Beastie Boys lead singer Adam Yauch cancelled the band's summer festival gigs, announcing apologetically on YouTube that he had a throat tumor. News reports have carried the sad information that Ted Kennedy is losing the ability to speak, as he watches the debate about health care reform -- a cause he's championed his entire career -- from home.

Just a few weeks ago, it seems, we were talking about Farrah Fawcett's tragic death from anal cancer, and the tabloids follow poor Patrick Swayze relentlessly to check whether he's still alive -- his death was mistakenly announced on Twitter one day, causing a flurry of anxiety and retractions. Then there's been all the controversy swirling around Apple's Steve Jobs, who reportedly relocated to Tennessee, where it's easier to get a liver transplant in his battle against what may or may not be metastatic pancreatic cancer. It's upsetting.

I thought it might be helpful to put things in perspective with the American Cancer Society's projections for 2009 deaths from cancer, which are startling. They show:

"¢ Cancer is the second leading cause of death, following closely after heart disease.
"¢ Cancer kills 23 percent of all those who will die this year; heart disease kills 26 percent.
"¢ By contrast, the number of people who die from all other killers is much smaller. Stroke? 5 percent. Accidents? 5 percent. Alzheimer's disease? 3 percent.
"¢ Cancer kills men and women almost equally; 292,540 men are projected to die from cancer this year, and 269,800 women will die.
"¢ Of these, lung cancer will kill 30 percent of all men, and 26 percent of all women.
"¢ Next comes breast cancer, which will kill 15 percent of all women who die.
"¢ Prostate and colon cancer both account for 9 percent of deaths.
"¢ Pancreatic cancer accounts for 6 percent of deaths for both men and women.

Feeling a little scared? You're in good company; I think that's why these news alerts circulate so fast. Cancer really frightens us, especially those of us who've been close to someone who died of cancer.

But we can turn these fears to good use by using them to spur us to action. The vast number of these deaths occurred because the cancer wasn't discovered until it had spread beyond its original tumor site. In most cases, cancer caught early is curable. So what's the best weapon against cancer? Catching it early with screening tests. Next week I'll delve deeper into this topic, with advice on the tests every man and woman should have this year to avoid ending up as one of the ACS's sad statistics.

We can also use our fear as a motivator to make lifestyle changes that can vastly reduce our risk of getting cancer, a topic I covered in a previous post. Would knowing that 30 percent of all the men who die of cancer this year will die from lung cancer persuade you to stop smoking? Would knowing that 45 percent of colon cancers are preventable persuade you to cut down your red meat and alcohol consumption, lose weight, and exercise more?

Only you can say. But I find that, for me, the best way to cope with my fear of cancer is to do something to protect myself or a loved one, whether that's taking a walk, cooking up a healthy veggie stir fry, or making an appointment for a mammogram. Try it, and let me know what you think.