Thursday, January 11, 2024

Washington Post writer explains why our general fear of cancer is outdated — and is harmful

Has cancer-phobia become an outdated — and harmful — concept?

In an opinion piece by David Ropeik in editions of The Washington Post earlier this week, the writer maintains that "our cancer phobia [is] a fear that in some ways no longer matches the facts."

David Ropeik
His column explains that we now know "that tens of thousands of common breast, prostate, and thyroid cancers that are detected early never go on to do any harm." 

Still, he writes, people "'over-diagnosed' with these types of cancer are understandably frightened and usually choose more aggressive treatment than their clinical conditions require. Some 'fear-ectomies' cause great harm, leading to side effects that range from moderate to severe and include death itself."

The columnist goes on to say that "we spend an estimate $5.2 billion a year on…clinically unnecessary treatment, 3 percent of the total spent on all cancer care annually."

Ropeik, author of Curing Cancer-phobia: How Risk, Fear, and Worry Mislead Us, maintains that "a diagnosis of cancer is still thought to be a death sentence [despite the fact that] mortality in the United States is down 33 percent in the past three decades [and as] many as two-thirds of all cancers can now be treated as chronic conditions or cured outright."

There apparently are more than 200 types of cancer, which all told kill roughly 600,000 people each year.

Ropeik, a former environmental journalist and retired instructor in the environmental management program at Harvard University's School of Continuing Education, writes that we collectively "have feared cancer more than any other disease since it became the No. 2 cause of death in the United States in the 1920s (after heart disease)."

The writer's opinion piece asserts that although "a majority of people believe that most cancer is caused by environmental carcinogens…we now know that cancer is principally a natural disease of aging, which allows DNA mutations that cause uncontrolled cell growth to accumulate." 

Despite that information, he says, "governments spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year to reduce the risk from environmental carcinogens [and] we spend billions on organic foods, vitamins, and supplements, as well as many other products that promise to reduce our risk of cancer but don't." 

Ropeik concludes that even though "we cannot absolutely cure cancer, nor will we ever entirely erase our cancer-phobia…we need to understand and battle both the disease and our fear, because both are doing terrible harm."

More information about fear of diseases can be found in Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner's breast cancer, a VitalityPress book that I, Woody Weingarten, aimed at male caregivers.

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