David Ropeik is an international consultant in risk perception and risk communication, and an Instructor in the Environmental Management Program at the Harvard University Extension School. He is the author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts and principal co-author of RISK A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You. He writes the blog Risk; Reason and Reality at Big Think.com and also writes for Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and Scientific American.
He founded the program “Improving Media Coverage of Risk,” was an award-winning journalist in Boston for 22 years and a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT.
This post originally appeared on Soapbox Science, a guest blog hosted by the nature.com Communities team.
If you were to be diagnosed with cancer, how do you think you would feel? It would depend on the type of cancer of course, but there’s a good chance that no matter the details, the word “cancer” would make the diagnosis much more frightening. Frightening enough, in fact, to do you as much harm, or more, than the disease itself. There is no question that in many cases, we are cancer-phobic, more afraid of the disease than the medical evidence says we need to be, and that fear alone can be bad for our health. As much as we need to understand cancer itself, we need to recognize and understand this risk, the risk of cancer phobia, in order to avoid all of what this awful disease can do to us.
In a recent report to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), a panel of leading experts on prostate cancer, the second most common cancer in men (after skin), said;
“Although most prostate cancers are slow growing and unlikely to spread, most men receive immediate treatment with surgery or radiation. These therapeutic strategies are associated with short- and long-term complications including impotence and urinary incontinence.”
“Approximately 10 percent of men who are eligible for observational strategies (keep an eye on it but no immediate need for surgery or radiation) choose this approach.”
“Early results demonstrate disease-free and survival rates that compare favorably (between observation and) curative therapy.”
“Because of the very favorable prognosis of low-risk prostate cancer, strong consideration should be given to removing the anxiety-provoking term ‘cancer’ for this condition.”
Let me sum that up. Many prostate cancers grow so slowly they don’t need to be treated right away…the unnecessary treatment causes significant harm…and one of the reasons nine men out of ten men diagnosed with slow-growing prostate cancer accept, indeed choose these unnecessary harms, is because “cancer” sounds scary.