Woman who refused chemo overcomes 75-year-long vomiting phobia

A British woman who forewent childbirth and chemotherapy due to a fear of vomiting has finally beat the phobia after a 75-year struggle, news.com.au reported.

Mary Steward, 81, said symptoms of the extreme fear, called emetophobia, first appeared when she was 6 years old. From her early childhood through her teenage years, she limited her diet so much to minimize the risk of feeling sick that her doctor and parents feared she had anorexia.

“Part of the fear was about vomiting in public or having people see me do it,” Steward told news.com.au. “In my late teens, I started taking a little bag whenever I went out containing antacid, a bottle of water, a cup and a teaspoon. I wouldn’t go anywhere without it, so that I could drink it if I felt sick.”

Steward described the phobia as “all-consuming,” but she didn’t allow the condition to prevent her from finding love. She met her late husband, Edgar, after moving from Essex to Harlow, in the United Kingdom, during her early 30s. She said she never thought she would get married because she didn’t plan on having children, due to emetophobia, but she fell for Edgar right away.

“We married in 1970, but I told him beforehand about my phobia. It was the first time I’d ever told anyone about it, but I had to because I could see we were getting serious. I said that I wouldn’t have children and he accepted it,” Steward told the news website.

She tried to beat her fear of throwing up by trying therapies like hypnosis and counseling, as well as reading “hundreds” of self-help books, to no avail.

In 1981, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and refused chemotherapy for fear of throwing up— a common side effect of the treatment— despite doctors telling her she’d likely die without it.

“I apologized to Edgar for the way I was, but his reply was, ‘You’re worth it, Mary,’” Steward said. “He completely supported my decision.”

According to news.com.au, Steward beat the cancer with a “one-off experiment” that involved an implant in her abdominal cavity. She endured the unexpected sickness that came along with that treatment, and in 1999, she was diagnosed with breast cancer that, to her relief, doctors treated with a lumpectomy and radiotherapy.

It was Edgar’s subsequent diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, which quickly progressed and eventually led to his death at age 79, that compelled Steward to face emetophobia head-on.

“Edgar was fabulous company and made my life for me, despite my fear,” Steward told the news website. “I came home and realized I was too old to work but no longer had a husband to look after. I felt pathetic but realized that I might have another 10 years to live so I might as well try and cure myself.”

A self-help book, “Cure Your Emetophobia & Thrive: The Research-backed Self-help Programme to Overcome Your Fear of Being Sick,” helped Steward finally beat her fear of vomiting. Although she hasn’t gotten sick since her ovarian cancer treatment, she said she has regained control over her own thoughts.

“I only wish I’d done something about it sooner, so I wouldn’t have spent 75 years worrying unnecessarily about something,” she said. “I could have even had children and grandchildren— life would have been very different.”

Click for more about Steward's experience with The Thrive Programme.

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