Being diagnosed with cancer can be scary. But how useful is that fear? Sometimes, the fear that patients feel at diagnosis can harm them as much as the disease does, says David Ropeik, risk perception expert and Harvard University Extension School instructor. Over at Nature's Soapbox Science guest blog, Ropeik says "cancer phobia" can be bad for one's health. It can contribute to over-diagnosis and unnecessary treatments like surgery or radiation, he adds. And the stress caused by a cancer diagnosis, or stress caused by the fear of being diagnosed with cancer, can elevate patients' blood pressure, increase their heart disease risk, and weaken their immune systems. "Despite all the progress we've made on cancer, a recent Harris poll found that cancer is the most feared disease in the US, 41 percent to Alzheimer's 31 percent," Ropeik says. He adds, "We have learned an immense amount about cancer, allowing us to treat, or even prevent, some types that used to be fatal. But we have also learned a great deal about the psychology of risk perception and why our fears often don't match the evidence. We are failing to use that knowledge to protect ourselves from the significant, tangible health risks of our innately subjective risk perception system."
Jan 12, 2012