Cancer Survivors, Don't Blame Yourself!


Cancer survivors have tremendous issues and fears to go through after an initial diagnosis. Don't add to your distress or lose sleep over self-blame.

When I was a clinical counselor and rehabilitation counselor, I worked with clients who had low self-esteem. In many cases, terrible things had been said and done to them including physical and sexual abuse. For persons with a disability, society is often harsh when one is labeled “different.”

One of the first things I would say to them was, “You have just spent 20 minutes telling me terrible things about yourself like you are ugly, lazy, stupid or a failure. Please tell me this — would you say these things to a good friend?”

Typically their answer was, “Of course not, because I would lose that friend.” My reply would gently be, “Then why do you do this to yourself?

A great deal of my work dealt with teaching people to treat themselves as well as they treated others and trying to raise their self esteem.

One of the first of many “gifts” my terrific oncologist gave me was to tell me, “There is nothing you could do to keep from getting this cancer.” To my knowledge, she doesn’t have a PhD in Psychology, but has something even better — a tremendous sensitivity and life experience in treating thousands of cancer patients and knowing their fears. I have an immune deficiency and a cancer both so rare that researchers don’t really know if the deficiency caused the cancer, but I think there is certainly a link. I am overweight and have been self conscious for years, so I especially needed to hear this in order not to berate myself over and over.

Cancer survivors have tremendous issues and fears to go through after an initial diagnosis. I would like to personally tell every one of them face-to-face not to add to their distress or lose sleep over self-blame.

What does cause cancer? Not even the experts agree. Please understand I am NOT condoning smoking like a stove pipe, never exercising, eating all the wrong foods and not taking care of yourself. But there is a middle ground here.

The American Institute for Cancer Research does state that maintaining a healthy diet, not smoking and being more active are the most important ways to reduce RISK of cancer. Of interest is the fact that only 5-10 percent of cancers are caused by genetic syndromes, so if your parents or grandparents died of cancer you may not necessarily develop it. They say that about 40 percent of cancers are preventable.

On the sensitive subject of being overweight, the American Cancer Society states that only 3.9 percent of cancers worldwide are due to being overweight—which means 96.1 percent are not. The World Health Organization is attempting to take some measures to help, such as limiting portions and passing laws forbidding trans fats in food.

Susan Swain wrote a very informative article where she interviewed Dr. Pamela Crilley, the chair of the medical oncology department at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America and Dr. Narjust Dumas, the chief hematology and oncology fellow at the Mayo clinic.

Dumas states that it is a myth that people who make healthy choices don’t get cancer and says: “Cancer starts with regular cells that went the wrong way.” If a person ate 4 pounds of kale a day that person may still get cancer! In her opinion cancer is a confluence of bad luck, genetics and environmental factors.

What about smokers who get lung cancer? Let me say up front that I detest smoking and even being around it really bothers my asthma. I would never advise a young person to start. For people who have smoked for years, it is easier said than done to quit. In my addiction classes in graduate school, I found out tobacco is more addictive than cocaine.

Crilley does make the point that if you do not smoke, this doesn’t guarantee you will not get lung cancer. Many years ago my grandfather died of lung cancer, most likely caused by working for the railroad over 40 years and inhaling the terrible smoke from the engine before diesel. Crilley points out lung cancer could be random or due to other environmental factors. She cites a study that persons who developed lung cancer had high incidences of mutated genes and abnormal proteins in their bodies.

I firmly believe this is the only body we have and we should treat it like a temple. That includes taking care of it the best we can. I find exercise is one of the best things I can do to stay healthy. I started in 1993 and never stopped—even through my chemo and treatments. I also do it because it makes me feel good!

The point I am making is the jury is still out on who gets this insidious disease called cancer and who does not. We need to take the best care of ourselves we can. But we also need to be gentle with ourselves. Do not waste time berating, blaming or beating up yourself or your loved ones. Try to do all the right things like watching your diet, not smoking and exercising. But don’t “guilt” yourself, because all this does is mess with your mind and limit your chances for overcoming cancer. We all know how important the body and mind connection is—so cut out the self blame!

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