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Optimism bias towards cancer under age 40 : 6 reasons why it is a risky belief

20 February 2024 | 8-mins read

Optimism is a powerful force that brightens our outlook and keeps us ready to tackle the obstacles in our way. But when it comes to financial decisions, being too optimistic can lead us astray. Believing in thoughts like "Cancer won’t happen to me," or "Buying insurance is like betting on getting sick," can leave you unprepared for the financial hardships caused by serious and unexpected illness.

These thoughts happen because of optimism bias – the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes. It's important to understand that serious illnesses like cancer can happen to anyone at any age, and being financially prepared is a smart way to protect yourself and your loved ones.  

Read on to learn more about optimism bias, why it's financially risky to think that you're too young or too healthy to get cancer, and how to stay prepared without losing your positive outlook. 

Optimism bias and other cognitive biases

Optimism bias – also known as the optimistic bias or overconfidence bias – is a cognitive bias where we overestimate the chances of positive events while underestimating the probability of negative events. Psychology research consistently finds that about 80% of the population1 experiences optimism bias, regardless of race, gender, cultural background, or age. 

This bias was defined in 1980 by psychologist Neil Weinstein2. He discovered that most college students believed they were less likely to face problems like divorce or alcoholism, and felt confident about the likelihood of positive outcomes, like living beyond 80.

While positive thoughts have a lot of upsides, being too optimistic can lead you to ignore real risks and lead to poor decision-making. For instance, you might underestimate the likelihood of job loss or health issues and fail to prepare for them. This can result in financial hardship that could have been avoided with a more balanced outlook. 

Examples of optimism bias in behavioural finance

When it comes to personal finance, optimism bias can make you expect the best financial outcomes while downplaying the risk of experiencing unfavourable events, like a stock crash or loss of income. It also creates a skewed perception of financial stability and future prosperity, which can make you neglect practices like saving for emergencies or getting the right insurance plan.

Below are some examples of optimism bias in behavioural finance. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

"I don't need to save much for retirement now. I'll be earning more in a few years."

"I don't need critical illness insurance. Cancer is something that happens to other people, not me."

"Investing in high-risk stocks will pay off big-time, and they're definitely going to perform well. I don't need a diversified portfolio…"

"My job is secure and future-proof. There's no need for an emergency fund."

"I'm young and healthy. I don't need health or critical illness insurance coverage now."

The reality of getting cancer in Singapore as a young adult

It's hard to imagine the possibility of getting cancer, especially when you’re at the prime of your life and none of your friends have fallen seriously ill.

The 2021 statistics from the Singapore Cancer Registry shows that people under age 40 are less likely to get cancer; however, the risk of developing the disease increases with age3. In fact, the Singapore Cancer Society estimates that 1 in 4 Singaporeans will get cancer at some point in their lifetime4.  

Even if a cancer diagnosis among 20- and 30-somethings is rare, Singaporean oncologists are already seeing a rise in young adults seeking treatment5

Top 10 cancer types among young adult males in Singapore 

Between 2017 – 2021, 1,722 Singaporean men aged 0 – 39 received a cancer diagnosis. These are the 10 most common cancer types found in men6:

Cancer type

% of males age 0 – 29 at diagnosis

% of males age 30 – 39 at diagnosis

Lymphoid neoplasms



Colon & rectum






Myeloid neoplasms









Brain & central nervous system












Top 10 cancer types among young adult females in Singapore

Between 2017 – 2021, 3,088 Singaporean women aged 0 – 39 received a cancer diagnosis. These are the 10 most common cancer types found in women7

Cancer type

% of females age 0 – 29 at diagnosis

% of females age 30 – 39 at diagnosis




Lymphoid neoplasms















Myeloid neoplasms



Colon & rectum



Brain & central nervous system






6 financial risks that come with cancer denial

Cancer denial – a mindset where people underestimate the possibility of developing cancer - often leads to a lack of preparation for the disease's financial, emotional, and physical toll. Here are the financial risks that arise out of optimism bias against cancer and the lack of preparation in the face of such a serious health issue.

Underestimating the financial costs of cancer

The cost of treating cancer can be substantial, especially if detected during later stages or if multiple treatment types are recommended.  Cancer's medical bills often come as a shock, leaving patients and families scrambling to make ends meet when the focus should be on treatment and recovery.

Patients can also look into Singapore's public schemes to cover unexpected medical bills. However, it may be insufficient to cover your medical expenses fully. Patients will then have to use their cash savings to cover the remaining portion of the bill.

Overlooking loss of income and impact of a career disruption

There are several hidden costs of cancer too, especially when it hits in your 20s or 30s.  At this life stage, you are just establishing your career or are poised to move into more senior roles. A cancer diagnosis can abruptly halt your career progression, as extended time off is needed for treatments and recovery.    

This disruption not only affects immediate income, but can also impact long-term career growth, opportunities for promotions, and skill development. Re-entering the workforce can also be tricky due to the employment gap, which can lead to a reduced earning capacity over time.

Ignoring the need for critical illness insurance

Denying the possibility of getting cancer means individuals may not be protected by critical illness insurance. This can have serious financial consequences if they get diagnosed later in life or contract a serious illness like stroke; patients are left to shoulder the high costs of treatment, which can include specialised medications and other therapies that standard health insurance plan might not fully cover. These medical expenses can quickly deplete savings and lead to a substantial debt.

This can be easily avoided with a critical illness insurance. It pays to start your coverage earlier too, as it is usually most affordable when you start coverage while you are young and healthier too.

Failing to spot insurance coverage gaps 

It's easy to assume that your standard health insurance will fully cover all aspects of cancer care. However, this is often not the case. Basic medical treatments and hospital stays may be covered, but health insurance frequently falls short of covering other treatments.  This includes expensive chemotherapy drugs, radiation therapy, experimental treatments, and other specialized care options. 

As a result, individuals without comprehensive coverage find themselves facing hefty out-of-pocket expenses, even if they have health insurance. These unexpected costs can rapidly accumulate and lead to financial strain, especially if the treatment occurs over a long period.

Protection against the financial burden of critical illness.

Neglecting early detection 

When cancer is diagnosed at advanced stages, treatment becomes complex, costly, and often requires a longer duration for recovery. Conversely, early detection often means that cancer can be treated with less aggressive and often affordable methods. 

The belief that "cancer won't happen to me" can cause a delay in seeking medical advice or getting routine health screenings that detect cancer in its early stages. By the time the cancer is diagnosed, it may have progressed to a more advanced stage, requiring more intensive and expensive treatment.   

Financial impact on families and dependents

Being financially unprepared for cancer has consequences for your family and dependents too. Apart from your loss of income, your spouse or parents may need to take time off to care for you, which can impact their income. Cancer's financial toll also extends to long-term financial plans, such as saving for your children's education or retirement.  

How to avoid optimism bias and stay healthy

To avoid the financial pitfalls of optimism bias, you need to adopt a balanced and realistic perspective on cancer risks. This involves acknowledging the possibility of developing cancer, regardless of your age, health, and family history. 

Once you're aware of the risks, you need to take proactive measures to safeguard your health and finances. Here are some ways to do this. 

Identify insurance gaps with a financial portfolio review

Conducting a financial portfolio review involves a thorough examination of your current financial situation and insurance coverage. Start by assessing your savings, investments, and existing insurance plans. Consider how much you have in your emergency fund and whether these savings could cover prolonged medical treatments or unexpected expenses that arise from a serious illness like cancer. 

Next, evaluate your health insurance plan in detail, paying close attention to coverage limits, deductibles, and exclusions. It's important to ensure that surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and other related cancer treatments are covered, and what the caps on payout are. Speak to your financial consultant to review your portfolio and finances holistically. 

Look into critical illness insurance

The Life Insurance Association (LIA) estimates that it takes 5 years to recover from a critical illness8. Even if you have enough savings or health insurance coverage for the cancer treatment, it may take several years before you can return to work and regain your earning potential.

This is why critical illness insurance (CI) is essential to a well-rounded financial plan. In case you get diagnosed with cancer or some other major illness, a CI plan will provide you with a lump-sum payment which you can use to cover costs beyond up-front cancer treatment fees, ensuring that you have the resources to manage your recovery and financial commitments.  

Attend your routine health screenings

Regular health screenings are an essential tool to battling optimism bias. When you go for regular check-ups, doctors can find early signs of cancer or conditions that might turn into cancer, often before you show any symptoms. Detecting and getting treated for cancer in these early stages is usually easier and more likely to be successful.

Talk to your doctor about how often you should be screened based on your age, overall health, and your family's history with cancer.

Balance positivity with a realistic outlook on cancer

Having an optimistic outlook on life and health is important for your well-being. However, it's important to balance this positivity with a sense of preparedness, especially when it comes to cancer. Optimism bias against cancer can lead to a dangerous underestimation of your risk, resulting in inadequate financial planning.

Remember, being optimistic does not mean ignoring the realities of major illness. Instead, it's about being proactive about early detection and prevention. Regular health screenings, informed lifestyle choices, and comprehensive financial planning are key steps in safeguarding your health and your peace of mind. 

By combining optimism with action, you create a strong defence against cancer, ensuring that you and your loved ones are well-prepared to face any health challenges that may come your way. 

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