Blaming the Cancer Patient


Every day seems to link another food or behavior to my cancer diagnosis. Those endless recommendations sometimes just minimize what I am going through. Am I wrong to say enough is enough?

Don’t smoke, don’t snack in the middle of the night, don’t eat sugar, don’t eat processed foods, don’t breathe diesel truck exhaust, don’t live in a polluted area, exercise, don’t be overweight, eat broccoli, eat the right blend of spices, drink moderately, stay calm, stay positive, get mammograms (but not too many because, you know, radiation), drink coffee but not too-hot coffee, avoid the sun but make sure you get vitamin D naturally, don’t use a dry cleaner, sleep in the dark, eat salmon …

How many cancer patients could fill up an entire page with all the things we’ve been told would have, could have, even should have prevented our hearing those awful words, “It’s cancer”? I know I certainly could do it.

Recently, a major science research journal published a report that detailed just how much of what we have is preventable. A physician wrote about the study in The New York Times, and his viewpoint would seem to be that, yes, a lot of us could have prevented what we’re experiencing.

I imagine I don’t need to express how that makes me feel.

According to him and the data, I fall into one of the categories where lifestyle choices within my control (see above if you need a reminder) have an effect on about 4 percent of the diagnosed patients studied. In fact, I would guess I have even less control over it since my specific breast cancer diagnosis is one that is not related to estrogen or progesterone production.

Did you read that last sentence?

I felt compelled to write it because sometimes I feel as though I’ve spent the last 19 months trying to defend myself from unspoken thoughts that I “deserve” my cancer diagnosis because I didn’t always and forever live the way I should have and if you wonder what that lifestyle is, well, again, just go back to that list at the top.

I firmly believe that blaming people for the things that befall them, as though they have total control over every aspect of the events in their lives, is just a trick of the blamer’s mind — a way to deny that anything bad could happen to me. These include thoughts like, “I don’t smoke therefore I won’t get lung cancer … I eat broccoli therefore I won’t get colon cancer.”

It’s a false sense of power that only serves to minimize what patients are experiencing.

And, boy, do we ever want to blame the victims of a disease like cancer. Magazines and internet sites have an endless supply of "beat cancer" articles, and it’s all too easy to go from reading those to believing that your neighbor, friend, relative wouldn’t be in her predicament if only she’d paid closer attention.

Is that wrong of me to say? I don’t think so.

I know that progress made in prevention is crucial. I know that cures won’t be found without understanding causes, and that sometimes those causes are within an individual’s control. But what one person finds easy to control, or even just possible to control, may be insurmountable for someone else.

I try to remember the time, just months ago, when I believed myself to be in no danger from anything worse than the flu. I would have read that list up there and said, “Yep, no problem. I already do most of that stuff.” So when I hear about the latest finding that links something I do or have done to my cancer, I think about how none of that can really matter to an individual patient. We each do the best we can. Sometimes we fall in line with the ever-growing list of recommended behaviors. Sometimes we don’t. Either way is OK.

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