How to Stop the Fear of Cancer in Its Tracks

Woman on phone

Googling symptoms in the middle of the night (or anytime) isn't going to make you feel better.

There have been many advances in the field of cancer in recent years, and overall, people with cancer today are living longer than ever. Despite that, it is understandable that cancer still invokes fear in people. Deborah Korenstein, Chief of the General Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering, understands this well. She regularly sees people who are concerned that their symptoms are warning signs of cancer. Dr. Korenstein shares some suggestions for putting these fears to bed.

1. Find a doctor you can count on.

Trust is at the heart of all relationships, and the one with your doctor is no different. “The most important thing is to have a doctor who can reassure you when something is nothing and investigate when it’s not,” says Dr. Korenstein. If you don’t mesh well with your doctor, that’s OK — move on and find someone who is a better fit.

2. Accept that you may not need a test.

Just like you, your doctor doesn’t want to miss anything important during your appointment. “When doctors are evaluating a new problem, a lot of the time we’re making sure it’s not a really bad thing,” Dr. Korenstein says. She adds that some doctors could do a better job of communicating the rationale behind their recommendations. For example, if a doctor decides not to order bloodwork or another test, a patient might think they haven’t been thoroughly evaluated. But doctors are assessing you as soon as they greet you, checking things like your speech, how your eyes look, and other hints into your overall health. “The evaluation starts the minute the doctor walks in the room,” she says. If you are worried about something in particular, share that with your doctor. Chances are, he or she can reassure you based on your symptoms. “If your doctor knows why you’re concerned, it’s much easier for them to communicate with you,” adds Dr. Korenstein.

3. Use the Internet wisely.

Using “Dr. Google” to learn more about symptoms is a double-edged sword, says Dr. Korenstein. On the one hand, it is very helpful when people already know they have a certain condition, such as diabetes. The Internet can help them learn more and prepare questions for their doctor. But scrolling can also drive people into a tailspin if they have yet to see a doctor for their symptoms. Internet searches can’t replace an in-person visit because a lot of context is missing, says Dr. Korenstein. “There’s a lot of hysteria on the Internet, and it’s really hard to parse out good information,” she adds. If you’re tempted to search for meaning behind your symptoms online, channel that energy into doing something else. Going down the rabbit hole of web searches only fuels anxiety.

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4. Be proactive when you can.

“There are a lot of risk factors for cancer that are under a person’s control,” says Dr. Korenstein. You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: Eat well, exercise, don’t drink too much alcohol, and don’t smoke at all. If you are at the recommended age for any screenings, take advantage of them, as cancer is often easier to treat when found early. If you’re doing that, you’re doing pretty much all you can, Dr. Korenstein says. “Pay attention, but don’t obsess about it,” she says. “You have to live your life.”