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.
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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