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Taking the fear out of cancer

A cancer diagnosis is never good news, but fear is your worst enemy. How you deal with it is crucial to your survival chances, which are getting better all the time, writes Professor Kerryn Phelps.

Being diagnosed with cancer can force you into a fog of fear for your future. What treatment do I need to have and what effect will it have on me? What are my chances of survival? How will it affect my family? Once it is treated, could the cancer come back? If you have been close to someone who has battled against cancer, you may have a well-founded fear of the disease and its treatment.

The numbers

We know the statistics about cancer – and they are scary. This year, it has been estimated 130,470 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in Australia, with that number set to rise to 150,000 by 2020.

According to Cancer Council Australia, cancer is one of the leading causes of death in Australia – more than 44,000 people are estimated to have lost their life from cancer in 2013, accounting for about three in 10 deaths in Australia.

Unless you are told that there is a 100 per cent chance that your cancer will be cured, you are going to experience a sense of uncertainty and anxiety. So, what can you do to reduce that level of fear?

Do your homework

One of the most effective ways of reducing your level of fear of a diagnosis of cancer is to gather as much credible and useful knowledge as you can. You need clear and honest information from your cancer specialists about your situation and what lies ahead.

Make sure you do some homework and gather a support team around you. This will include your special people (family and friends). Your medical and allied health team will also be essential, of course. Make sure the cancer specialists you see are experienced with your particular type of cancer.

It is important to talk about your fears regarding your cancer and its treatment. Your doctors and nurses, or a counsellor can help. Connect with support groups or telephone helplines, which can give you information and share experiences with you at times when you need to talk to people who have been through the same experiences.

Success stories

When you hear about “cancer statistics”, you often hear only the negatives. I have been in medical practice for over 30 years. In the early part of my career, a woman diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer would have been told there was nothing more to be done. Now, it is a vastly different picture. Even with metastatic disease, we plan for possible long-term survival.

The survival rate for many types of cancers, such as breast cancer, has increased by 20 per cent in the past three decades as a result of earlier diagnosis and more effective treatments. More than 60 per cent of people diagnosed with cancer in Australia will survive more than five years after diagnosis.

Read more of this story in Ask the Doctor, The Australian Women’s Weekly’s newest special edition which features hundreds of medical questions expertly answered by Professor Kerryn Phelps.

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