What If We Treated Cancer Like We Treat Climate Change?

"Only snowflakes get cancer. You're exaggerating."

Posted Nov 03, 2018

Patricia Prijatel
East Peak Fire, 2013
Source: Patricia Prijatel

Imagine if you got cancer and your friends said it wasn't real. That it was just some natural cycle of your body and nothing to worry about — it would just take care of itself. That people have been facing cancer forever, and you’re just overreacting when you think you need to treat yours.

Meanwhile, your doctors, who have spent their years studying and treating this specific disease, were telling you that, in fact, cancer is serious and, without treatment, can be fatal.

With cancer comes stress — you’re worried about your health, your family, your finances, everything. But your stress is exacerbated by the fact that you are faced with friends who not only don't support you but actively challenge the basic assumptions of your diagnosis.

Worse, they say your disease is connected to your politics. “Cancer seems only to be a problem with snowflakes,” they scoff.

This is hypothetical, at least right now, but this scenario parallels the fight many of us face as we advocate for the health of the planet. We’re looking at science, and we’re anxious about what we see, but we’re called political.

Climate change should be no more political than cancer. Both are science-based, both are treatable, both are serious threats to our health. Neither looks at your political affiliation before striking. 

It stands to reason that those of us most informed about climate change are also the most anxious about it. So we have a double whammy—dealing with our own concerns in a society that says our stress is based on a nonexistent problem. Where do you go with that? This stress is so real and serious it’s now recognized as a distinct psychological problem, climate anxiety disorder, with the effects being depression, fear, anxiety, and PTSD.  For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, among people directly affected by the storm, rates of suicide and thoughts of suicide more than doubled, 1 in 6 people were diagnosed with PTSD, and 49 percent developed an anxiety or mood disorder such as depression.

But even those whose experience only includes learning about and believing climate-change risks, even if they’re not directly involved in an extreme and anomalous climate event, tend to be more depressed and stressed than those less informed.

I’ve had cancer and I’ve had climate-caused PTSD and the latter makes me the most hopeless. We take cancer seriously, but climate change, which was likely a factor in my cancer, is treated like some political myth.

In 2017, The American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica released a report looking at the psychological risks of climate change: Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance.

Some findings:

•Although the psychological impacts of climate change may not be obvious, they are no less serious because they can lead to disorders, such as depression, antisocial behavior, and suicide. Therefore, these disorders must be considered impacts of climate change as are disease, hunger, and other physical health consequences.

•Climate change–induced extreme weather, changing weather patterns, damaged food and water resources, and polluted air impact human mental health. Increased levels of stress and distress from these factors can also put strains on social relationships and even have impacts on physical health, such as memory loss, sleep disorders, immune suppression, and changes in digestion.

What is worse is that climate change, at least in the United States, is a highly  partisan issue:

Politically polarized in the United States, climate change is perceived as an issue that belongs with the political left (Dunlap, McCright, & Yarosh, 2016), [a perception] which can suppress belief and concern and discussions about solutions. For example, of the 36% of Americans who are personally concerned a great deal about climate issues, 72% are Democrats, and 27% are Republicans (Pew Research Center, 2016). Political orientation can make open conversations about climate impacts and solutions difficult, and make those who are concerned about climate change feel isolated or paranoid in some circles (Geiger & Swim, 2016).

My anxiety started when we had to evacuate out remote Colorado cabin during the East Peak Fire in 2013, getting out just minutes before a neighbor’s home exploded. It was exacerbated by subsequent floods, violent storms, and hungry, orphaned wildlife. I was so busy taking care of the physical issues—cleaning up dead trees, pulling giant invasive weeds, creating erosion barriers, fixing the screen the bear tore—that the psychological effects snuck up on me.

We often ignore our own stress, so downplaying the psychological aspects of climate change is apparently part of being human. “I think that it was below the surface for a long time,” psychologist Lise Van Susteren, told Think Progress in a 2018 interview. “Oftentimes, we can be anxious and not really know that we’re anxious, or we can be anxious and not know why. Until it’s really in your face, you can continue to repress that anxiety because it’s so uncomfortable. And now, we can’t repress it anymore. It’s right there in our face.”

I began waking in terror at the slightest noise at night, my heart thumping to the point I thought I was just going to die right there. I needed sleeping pills to get through, and now, five years later, I still use earbuds to pipe soothing sounds into my ears and mask any bumps in the night.

I shrugged it off until a therapist told me I had PTSD. But, I said, I was unharmed. His response: “I think a fire, bear, and floods sound pretty scary.” Like many diagnoses, that one affirmed and actually calmed me. I wasn't a wuss. I was reacting to real threats in a real way.

Being anxious about the climate, if you follow the science, simply makes sense. How to deal with that anxiety when the root problem is denied? The APA/ecoAmerica report suggests that psychologists need to become “mental health-related climate-literate professionals.” That is, they need to recognize that this is a mental health crisis that needs a response. Beyond that, we all need to advocate for the health of the planet and its inhabitants. We need to acknowledge the initial problem and deal with its effects.

Most cases of cancer are highly survivable, thanks to research that has led to more successful treatments and, in some cases, a reduction in risk—as in cutting the incidence of smoking to reduce lung cancer. We need that same seriousness of purpose to combat climate change and climate anxiety.

And we all need to speak up and end our climate silence.

This disease might not be survivable.