If you think your body – or the body of someone you love – might be at risk of being overmedicalized, keep reading! In Part 1 of this blog series, I discussed The Shocking Dangers of Medical Overdiagnosis & Overtreatment. In Part 2, I shared How To Avoid Medical Overdiagnosis & Overtreatment. And in Part 3 today, I’m going to prove to you that, in spite of how anxious many people are about health, we’ve never been safer – so take a big, deep sigh of relief.

There’s copious scientific proof that fear and anxiety harm almost every organ system, predisposing fearful people to a whole host of diseases.  Our fear of illness and death leads us to fear far off, undetectable levels of radiation, pesticides, hormones in milk, chemicals in food, poisons in our water supply, genetically modified organisms, and toxins in our air. We’re worried about mercury in our fish and fillings, bacteria in our cheese, lead in our paint, leaky breast implants, and mold in our basements. We’re afraid of toxins in our cosmetics, poisons in plastics, and contamination of our meat. We’re anxious about whether microwave ovens, cell phones, and deodorant will kill us. We’re terrified of cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s, and herpes. Not a single case of Ebola virus has ever been reported in the United States, and yet, Americans fear it.

Yet fear itself is making us sick.

Cancer Phobia

What strikes me as particularly ironic is that surveys show cancer is the most feared disease in America.  We fear cancer, and yet, fear may make us susceptible to cancer. It’s a deadly catch-22. Fear of cancer, termed “cancer phobia,” is a relatively new phenomenon in the consciousness of the modern world. Cancer phobia has led to remarkable strides in modern medicine, fueling research that has led some cancers to be almost completely curable. Yet such medical advances in cancer diagnosis have a dark side – overdiagnosis and overtreatment.

When we think about cancer prevention, there’s a great deal of attention on cancer screening techniques and early diagnosis. Some go as far as investing in whole-body scans to screen for undiagnosed cancers, even though such scans have proven to do more harm than good.

But what drives such obsessive testing? Fear.

Yet fear and anxiety may actually increase the risk of cancer.  When was the last time your doctor screened you for cancer phobia and made recommendations for how you might reduce your fear as preventative medicine? Perhaps we must focus as much attention on becoming less afraid as we do on scheduling mammograms and colonoscopies.

We’ve Never Been Safer

The reality is that, as a society, in all measurable ways, we’ve never been safer.

1. We live longer.

Over the past century, Americans enjoy life spans 60% longer in 2000 than in 1900. In 1900, a baby born in England had a life expectancy of forty-six years. In 1980, it was 74 years. Now, Canadians can expect to live more than eighty years.

2. Childbirth is safer.

For most of human history, giving birth was the riskiest thing a woman could do. Yet as a former OB/GYN who saw forty patients a day in my clinical practice, I can vouch for the fact that modern pregnant women are terrified – of lunch meat, of hot tubs, of X-rays, of hair dye, of wine, of vaccinations, and anything else they perceive as a threat to their baby. Yet oddly, they don’t fear getting into a car when they’re pregnant, even though their pregnancy faces greater risk every time they do.

Childbirth is still a risk in some developing countries, where 440 women die giving birth for every 100,000 children delivered. But in the developed world, only 20 out of 100,000 women die as a result of pregnancy. It’s never been safer to have a baby.

3.  Children are also safer than ever.

In England in 1900, 14% of all babies and young children died. By 1997, that number had fallen to 0.58%. While most parents confess to being terrified that they will lose a child, since 1970 alone, the death rate of American children has fallen by more than two thirds, and in Germany, it has dropped by three quarters. 

4. We’re healthier.

We’re not just living longer – we’re living healthier. Fewer people develop chronic illnesses and those who do develop them ten to twenty-five years later in life than in years gone by. Even when people do get sick, the severity of the illness tends to be less. Modern people in developed countries are less likely to become disabled.

5.  We’re even getting smarter!

You wouldn’t necessarily know it from watching our politicians’ political campaigns, but the reality is that IQ’s are even increasing.

People In Developed Countries Are Exceptionally Blessed

Not only are we at exceptionally low risk of what once plagued us – starvation, animal attacks, childbirth, and exposure to the elements. We are also no longer at high risk of dying from a minor cut or unsanitary water. For the most part, those in the developed world have food, shelter, clean water, fresh air, waste disposal, access to emergency health care, and evacuation warnings when hurricanes are imminent.

By all measures, we are the healthiest, smartest, richest, safest people in human history.

So drink that in. Take a deep breath. Trust the Universe. And don’t be afraid.

If you’re shaking your head, thinking “Sure, Lissa – easy to say, but hard to practice,” don’t worry. The next post in this series will focus on managing fear and anxiety around illness and death, so you can revel in this one wild and precious life and savor every single, delicious drop of life force within you. 

Do You Feel Safe?

Until then, tell us what you think. Do you feel safe in the world? Or do you worry about the safety and health of yourself and those you love?

In a safe world,

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  1. Carleton

    And on the other hand, here are some excerpts regarding our nation’s health from a 2009 leftbusinessobservor.com article:

    “Americans may be some of the least healthy people in the rich part of this world, but we sure do feel good about ourselves!

    That’s one of the more interesting revelations in the 2009 edition of the OECD’s Social Indicators. Americans lead the world in obesity, lag the world in life expectancy and infant mortality—yet 89% of us report ourselves to be in excellent health, just behind the world’s biggest health-boasters, New Zealanders, who beat us by a point in self-reported health, but who outlive us by more than two years.

    It’s depressing to look too closely at the U.S. health indicators. It’s pretty well known that our headline health figures, like life expectancy and infant mortality, are among the rich world’s worst, and the OECD confirms that impression. Of the 30 countries for which the OECD reports data, the U.S. comes in 24th in life expectancy, with poorer countries behind it. And of the same 30 countries, the U.S.has the sixth-highest incidence of low birthweight among newborns, and the third-highest level of infant mortality; again, it’s mostly poor countries like Mexico and Turkey that have more painful figures.

    But it’s not just those basics. Americans are the world’s fattest people, which despite the best efforts of the fat acceptance lobby, is not something that comports with a high degree of physical or social health. Though the association isn’t statistically airtight, there is a tendency for countries with high poverty rates to have obese populations; this is certainly true for Mexico and the U.S., if not for Japan or Turkey.

    Americans may be champs in the horizontal dimension, but we’re not doing so well on the vertical. The U.S. is about the only country in the OECD in which people in their early 20s aren’t taller than those in their late 40s—a distinction that cannot be explained by the immigration to the U.S. of short people. No, it’s mostly about childhood nutrition, or lack of it.

    And of the ten countries for which the OECD has data, Americans have the most severe psychological problems, with nearly half experiencing some form of mental illness during their lifetimes—and over a quarter in any given year. Our mental disorders tend to be more severe, as well; though France is pretty high up in the rankings, three times as many disorders are classified as mild rather than severe; the two categories are almost equal in the U.S. And the U.S. leads in all brands of mental problems—anxiety, mood, substance abuse, and impulse control.

    Americans profess to be healthy and happy, but by objective evidence, they’re not. Yet what else can a nation of habitual optimists do?”

  2. Erin Martinson

    yes I feel safe in the world. I think I always have. There have been a few rare moments of anxiety (which I play close attention to) but for the most past I believe that I life in a safe “place”.

    I do worry about the safety and health of people close to me. Living an active outdoor lifestyle in Southern California makes skin cancer an obvious concern – but we take precautions, I worry about my daughter and how she approaches life – and why she coughs all the time and what that weird thing in her throat is . . . (all of which have been checked out by doctors who tell me she is fine). And I believe them, it’s just out of my realm of knowledge. I worry about my parents in the midwest, as they age (although they are very healthy) I worry about my friend who has stage IV Lymphoma at 36 and has a one-year-old daughter. I worry – but I don’t live in the worry.

    Mostly I trust the universe, I trust my God – I can see what I will be when I am older, I can see my daughter becoming a very strong, intelligent, creative woman and leader in the world. (how that actaully looks is her choice). I see the connections and the community that is being created all around me.

    Thanks for writing about how we are healither these days, and learning how to stay healthier.

  3. Julie Adams

    I love this article. In the caveman times, we could expect to live to about 23. If you have lived past 23, shut up and be glad, eh? My mom had me thoroughly convinced that like my maternal grandmother, I could expect to die of cancer by that same age, coincidentally, because that is when her mom died of cancer, and she told us she had read somewhere that it tends to “come out in every other generation”. So my mom could expect to live, but my sister and I were doomed. I have now lived more than twice that (and so has my older sister). Also, I have “popped” what I thought to be malignant (jet black, hard and shiny) spots (2 in my lifetime) out of my skin the size of a zit, as if they were zits, and merrily headed back out into the sun…

  4. Michelle Medina

    This all just makes me smile! I’d say my biggest fear has nothing to do with illness and everything to do with whether or not I make my mark on the populous.
    As for safety. . . I just spent 5 hours in a moshpit Saturday night. My safety??? Not to worried. Like I told someone else just a bit ago. Hey, if I’m in a pit and I die, I die with a band I love playing and am never happier than when I’m there, so why not doing something I love?

  5. Cat Williford

    Love this series of articles! I feel very safe when I listen to my body. I believe one of the most under-utilized “diagnostic” tools we have is listening to our bodies every day.

    When I respect what my body wants (walk instead of run on some days, green juice instead of a margarita, chips and guacamole instead of enchiladas), I experience my health and well being.

    When I listen to my body, all the fear-inducing magazine articles and news stories don’t have a place to land or stick inside me.

  6. Julie

    Lissa, i am one of those people who live in fear. I cant say when it started but i know it has always been close to my side.I think if i just get tested for this or for that and well if they find something it means that i will catch it early and then i will be ok. So i get it done all is clear then BAM something else raises it ulgly head and im on the merry go round again. Just lately ive really stated saying i dont wont this, its not who i am but Lissa i dont know how to change it face it or deal with it. On a whole i am not a stressed out person but FEAR keeps me from being me and the stupidness(if that is a word) thing is i really dont know WHY.

  7. Margaret

    Absolutely have this cancer phobia- help! I’m a 10 year survivor and I can’t tell you how
    many people Have said well, be careful Bc it usually Comes Back ten years later….and here I am. Please discuss! Thx to all!!

  8. Ann

    Yes, I feel safe in the world. I don’t care where we live, our job is to take care of ourselves and give a helping hand (in any form, a smile, food, a car ride, etc). Mother Theresa said that she wasn’t trying to feed the world, just the person in front of her…or something close to that. The bottom line for me, is that we are here to learn and to live in joy and abundance. Some of us may get sick because there are lessons to be learned by us or the people around us. I say go for joy and gratefulness. Our God/Universe/Source or whatever term a person wants to use, is always there for us and being afraid wont change that fact nor will it make us feel safer.


  9. Julie Adams

    I just remembered one of my favorite quips that I had meant to include above. Just remember, “BIRTH CAUSES DEATH” (eventually).

  10. Raina Mermaid

    Great article, thank you


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