When her coworker developed skin cancer, Vanessa began to worry about her own health. She went to the dermatologist for a full body check and was told that all was well. But Vanessa wasn’t reassured. She began researching skin cancer on the Internet several times a day. Every evening, she stood naked before a full-length mirror and inspected herself. She visited a second dermatologist, then a third and a fourth. The doctors found no signs of trouble—yet as the months passed, Vanessa became increasingly convinced that skin cancer was inevitable.
Vanessa had developed what psychologists sometimes call cancerophobia. This disorder falls under the general umbrella of hypochondriasis (a.k.a. hypochondria), meaning health anxiety or health phobia. According to psychologist Michael J. Telch, PhD, director of the Laboratory for the Study of Anxiety Disorders at the University of Texas at Austin, a phobia is a significant fear that is out of proportion to the potential danger—so with cancerophobia, an individual has an unrealistic fear of and preoccupation with having or developing cancer.
It is reasonable and even helpful to have some level of fear about cancer. That motivates us to get screening tests such as colonoscopies and to promptly report suspicious lumps or spots to our doctors. It also is normal to feel anxious when we go for a mammogram, for instance, and to feel relief when the scan is negative.
With cancerophobia (as with hypochondria), however, a person gets caught up in the cycle of anxiety and the reassurance she (or he) gains from being told that everything is fine. Thus, she lives in a state of near constant alarm, convinced that she has undetected cancer or one day will develop it. This extreme level of distress interferes with her ability to live a normal life, Dr. Telch said, because she spends all her energy dealing with a false alarm.
Faulty thinking or “magical thinking” plays a significant role in cancerophobia. “One of my patients believed that just having the word cancer come into her mind would increase her chances of getting the disease,” Dr. Telch said.
Certain actions performed in response to the fear of cancer can, paradoxically, increase anxiety to the point where it becomes debilitating. Psychologists call these fear-promoting actions safety-seeking behaviors. Examples include excessively checking for lumps or other abnormalities on the body... constantly reading about cancer on the Internet... scheduling repeated medical checkups over a short period... and avoiding certain situations or activities for fear that they might lead to cancer.
For people who have actually already had cancer, it is normal for worry to simmer just beneath the surface for a time, Dr. Telch said. However, persistent and extreme anxiety about a recurrence may signal cancerophobia.
If you suffer from cancerophobia, Dr. Telch suggested the following...
Try to stop acting as if you already had cancer. Identifying your safety-seeking behaviors and systematically fading them out of the picture can help you overcome all types of anxiety problems, he said. Did you manage to avoid Internet cancer sites all day or resist the urge to ask a family member for assurance that all is well? Those are good steps to take.
Put a check on checking. Constant checking (cataloging imagined symptoms, consulting physicians, researching cancer) does not assuage anxiety but rather fuels alarm. “The action of checking sends a message to the brain that something must be wrong, because otherwise you wouldn’t be checking,” Dr. Telch explained. He recommended taking a one-day-at-a-time approach to monitoring and changing the behaviors that characterize your phobia.
Counteract illogical thoughts. Try to identify and correct fear-promoting thoughts through logical analysis and behavioral experiments that weaken your exaggerated sense of vulnerability to cancer. For instance, rather than viewing vague signs or feelings as sure signs of cancer (Oh no, that spot must be melanoma!), remind yourself to recognize them for what they truly are (It’s a normal age spot like everyone gets). Cancerophobia can be complicated by the fact that there’s no way to guarantee that you won’t ever get cancer. However, the idea is to gain a realistic sense of your risk and to practice appropriate ways of protecting yourself (for instance, with a healthy diet and lifestyle and recommended cancer screenings), rather than to be overwhelmed by a sense of vulnerability.
If your fears persist despite your efforts, seek help from a mental health professional trained to treat phobias. Referrals: Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (www.abct.org)... Academy of Cognitive Therapy (www.AcademyOfCT.org)... Anxiety Disorders Association of America (www.adaa.org).
Good news: With the right help, hard work pays off fairly quickly. Dr. Telch said, “It’s amazing how fast the fears can dissipate. In a matter of weeks, most cancerophobia patients are feeling better and getting on with their lives.”
Source: Michael J. Telch, PhD, is a professor of psychology and founder and director of the Laboratory for the Study of Anxiety Disorders at the University of Texas at Austin. His primary areas of interest include the nature and treatment of phobias and anxiety states, such as panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety. He has published more than 130 journal articles and book chapters, and his work has been featured on the National Geographic Channel series Phobia. www.TelchLab.com