I know of women who are worried about getting breast cancer. Not for any specific reason that relate to their odds, such as having a family member with it, just worried about it. Knowing that human beings suck at probabilities, I decided to look up the actual odds of getting breast cancer and try to create a “rational” scale of fear of possibilities. Turns out breast cancer is around 35th of killers, behind people voluntarily taking their own lives and road traffic accidents. The highest (other than old age) is heart disease. So, if you’re more worried about dying from something, worry about everything on the list until you reach that thing. So, for example, if I had a “rational” model of fear, and I was afraid of say respiratory diseases, I have to be afraid of cardiovascular diseases (almost 30% of all deaths), infections and parasites (~19%), Ischemic heart disease(~12.5%), cancers in general (~12.5%), and strokes(~10%). Adding all those up, I’m already 84% scared for my life. Breast cancer accounts for about 0.84% of killers globally.
Now, I don’t really want to suggest that women are more afraid of breast cancer because breast cancer has better marketing (which it does), but I believe that, ironically, though, the pervasive fear with breast cancer (unless you’re actively facing it) seems to be not that you will die, but that a mastectomy will be required. This is particularly scary for a few reasons: our sense of identity tends to include all our body parts, but gender-specific body parts more so and this applies for both men and women. This may well be presumptious but I believe it is a loss of something fundamental to your identity that causes this fear.
Then again, I may be wrong about all this. I am indeed way out of my depth and feel a little like perhaps Steven Levitt the economist felt when trying to tell people that after 2 years of age, a seat belt is just about as safe as a complicated and expensive car seat in saving kid’s lives and injuries at TED.