health

You feel a lump in your neck, and you freeze with that dreaded thought: Cancer.

It all starts with a lump in the breast or a mass in the neck. Few things incite as much terror as that one thought; ‘what if it’s cancer.’

Cancer seems to be everywhere. Seldom does a Sunday paper go by without a report of a new ‘breakthrough’ in cancer treatment. Yet a miracle cure for cancer seems nowhere to be found. Click bait articles such as ’10 symptoms that could be cancer’ or ‘how your mobile/microwave/deodorant/morning coffee/entire life could be giving you cancer’ receive a high proportion of cyber traffic.

"Seldom does a Sunday paper go by without a report of a new 'breakthrough' in cancer treatment." Image via iStock.

In reality, there are many other diseases that are far more frightening and far more deadly.

Let’s say someone you know is diagnosed with heart failure. They have between a 31-52 per cent chance of dying within the year. In stark contrast, depending on the stage, women on average have a 90 per cent chance of living for five years with breast cancer, or a 97 per cent chance with testicular cancer. Of course there are some types of cancer that are far more deadly. But even so, cancer seems to receive a disproportionate bulk of our fear.

Why is cancer so unique? What is it about the disease that is so omnipotent?

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Firstly, cancer looks brutal. With most diseases, treatment makes you better. Antibiotics make your cold go away, asthma medication helps you breathe, and having your appendix removed makes the pain go away. But cancer is the complete opposite.

Cancer patients often start treatment looking completely well. But as they progress through rounds of radiation, chemotherapy and surgery, we watch our loved ones become frail, nauseated, disfigured and poisoned by the very same treatment that is trying to make them better.

Of course, that is not to say that the treatment is harmful and counter-productive. Individually tailored, evidenced-based treatment gives people the best chance at surviving their cancer. But we cannot see the tumours shrinking, or the cancer regressing. All that we can see is hair falling out, the loss of a breast, the scar across a tummy, and our frightened loved one.

"We watch our loved ones become frail, nauseated and disfigured." Image via iStock.

More than the treatment, we fear cancer because it is insidious. Google ‘cough,’ and congratulations, its lung cancer. Google ‘back pain’ and you have prostate cancer that has spread to your spine. Google doesn’t care you’re a woman and that you don’t even have a prostate. In fact, I dare you to find a single symptom that doesn’t come up as cancer.

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Cancer is a disease that spares no one. We can lull ourselves into a false sense of comfort that we won't get heart disease because we are fit or young. We can falsely believe we are safe from lung disease because we don’t smoke. But cancer doesn’t discriminate. It can target babies. It can target athletes and even celebrities like Delta Goodrem. It targets politicians, teenagers, doctors, teachers and your friends and family.

"We fear cancer because it is insidious." Image via iStock

It is common. So common, in fact, that it is rare to find a person who doesn’t have a loved one who has been touched by cancer. This makes it infinitely more difficult to say 'but it won't happen to me.'

Moreover, cancer is sneaky. The lymph node you felt could be cancer. The headache in your meeting could be a brain tumour. The bloating you have before your period could be ovarian cancer. To the anxiety-prone mind, any twinge of pain, weight loss, lump or ache could be cancer.

Of course, these symptoms are overwhelmingly NOT due to cancer. Despite its high prevalence, the majority of people will go through their life without ever being diagnosed with cancer. But rationality doesn’t always win in the face of fear.

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In many cases, the fear of the disease can be worse than the disease itself. What many people don't understand is that cancer is not a single disease, but an umbrella term for hundreds of different diseases which are biologically and physiologically very different.

No two people with cancer will have the same experience. What will treat breast cancer may have no effect on colon cancer. Understanding this is the key to understanding why we won't have a cure anytime soon.

"The fear of the disease can be worse than the disease itself." Image via iStock.

If you have any concerning symptoms, it’s always best to consult your local GP. But when you’re frantically typing into the search engine, ‘top 10 reasons for rash on arm,’ try to remain calm. Just because cancer might be on the list, doesn’t mean it’s the most likely.

In the meantime, better go get the cough you’ve had for an hour checked. You never know, it could be tracheobronchopathia osteochondroplastica.

Yael Lefkovits just completed her 3rd year as a medical student at Monash University. For more by Yael, visit the Doctus Project at http://www.doctusproject.com/