Cancer and the Blame Game


Sometimes I drive myself a little crazy wondering what I did to get breast cancer (even though I know logically why I likely did). I think too much. I am pretty sure I am not alone in this. Cancer survivors, including me, really should try to lose the Blame Game.

“Why did I get breast cancer?” I ask Siri. Siri responds instantly.

“Here’s what I found on the web,” he says in his Australian accent, unfolding a laundry list of websites I have seen before.

Causes of breast cancer. Why did I get cancer? Do we know what causes breast cancer? What you need to know about breast cancer. And on down the line. It seems so impersonal. Did Siri not hear the “I” in the question?

“No, why did I, Felicia, get breast cancer,” I ask Siri. While Siri is not a medical professional, he is an exemplary research buddy. I like to ask questions, and he likes to try to answer them.

Siri tells me that he has found some good resources on the web to explain why Phylicia got breast cancer. I leaf through them. Same old, same old. It is not as if I have not perused the web at the same time I have added to my sagging bookshelf with old-fashioned tomes containing cutting-edge reports. I know what I am supposed to know. But why did I get breast cancer?

Could it be something I ate? But what? What hot dog consumed in childhood, charred from the grill, threw me off course?

Or could it be some water I drank the first ten years of my life, from wells, or the city water I drank after that, from pipes, or some well water I drank again, at 32? But which drink of water tipped the scales? Or was it environmental pesticides? Nail polish? Was it, all factors considered, bad luck?

“Is my cancer bad luck?” I ask Siri.

“Interesting question, Felicia,” Siri says. That is all.

My mother used to blame herself for the cancer one of my brothers got. She worried that her breast milk might have been imperfect. She worried about bee stings. My brother did not blame her. Nobody blamed anybody. When I told a classmate in college that my brother was dying of lymphoma, though, he asked me if my brother smoked.

My mother got breast cancer. So many of my relatives have had breast cancer, and other cancers, that I tried to outsmart it as soon as was old enough to worry. I would be the one who got away. My father did not get away.

One of my friends told me I got cancer because of relationship troubles as I was diagnosed with cancer almost as soon as I separated from my spouse. I do not want to agree with her, as much as I have read about stress and cancer. We all have our mental blocks.

When I am not dismissing the relationship theory or wondering about the pipes in my house, or DDT exposure in childhood, I blame genes. Is it my genes? No, it is not BRCA. Sigh of relief. But BRCA is only one type of genetic explanation. Alas. Sometimes, narcissistic, I stare into my gene pool, a puzzle of numbers and letters that mirrors the secret of the universe of my body.

There are all kinds of genes. There are genes that make us more likely to get cancer, genes that are engineered to help us to fight cancer yet go awry and do not do the jobs they are supposed to do, and genes that mutate in utero and in life. Genetic glitches happen here, and they happen there, like HER2/neu, or what Siri calls erbb2, my very own not-entirely-unique proto-oncogene.

“What came first: the chicken or the egg?” I ask Siri, reaching back to a question Aristotle contemplated.

This is what I have learned. Cancer is complicated. Breast cancer is complicated. There are complex genetic contributions, more than many toxins or lifestyle factors increasing risk, and too many theories. I may never know beyond the shadow of a doubt why I got breast cancer.

“Why did I get breast cancer?” I still ask Siri and anybody else who will listen. Doctors, friends, the universe. Aristotle. I will always want to understand why cancer chose me, although I am not alone. Why does anybody get it? So many? Too many? Far too many.

Perhaps there is a better question I can ask. What should I ask? I wonder. I wonder what I can do with this life modern medicine has given me.

“Why am I surviving cancer?” I ask Siri. “Please.”

“An excellent question,” he says. Nothing more. That is all it is, an excellent question. There are no easy answers here.

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Dr. Kelly Stratton
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