Catching Cancer


Cancer is just an unlucky accident, so stop blaming yourself.

When I came out with my diagnosis of breast cancer, I received an incredible number of supportive comments and some interesting ones.

The most interesting question: How did I get cancer?

My answer: "I don't know. My boobs never smoked." I then added, "Maybe they hung out with bad company."

I did wonder though, if there was something I did. Was it my heavy drinking (thank you Alcoholics Anonymous for helping with that)? Was it the fact that I'm overweight (I prefer to say pleasantly plump)? Was it the fact that I've never had children?

Bingo. That's part of it. I found great answers from a book called Breast Cancer: Real Questions, Real Answers by David Chan, MD, from UCLA, who has been treating patients with breast cancer for 40 years. (By the way, I would recommend this book to anyone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer — the book takes you through the process and all the questions in a plain, readable and incredibly helpful way).

Here's what Dr. Chan has to say:

  • Industrialized countries have the highest incidence of breast cancer in the world
  • Research has shown that this is due to the fact that young 'uns in these countries get higher calorie, higher nutrition diets so young girls enter puberty sooner
  • Women in industrialized countries put off having children longer and tend not to breast feed their babies as much or for as long
  • This means that the breast tissue of women in these countries are more exposed to estrogen and progesterone, one of the key growers of breast cancer
  • Obesity and drinking can be a factor (the fat in women's bodies produces more of those hormones), but compared to the where-you-live question, these factors are fairly minor.

But as I said, these are only some of the factors. Early in 2015, the good scientists from the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center released research they call the Bad Luck of Random Mutations, describing a statistical model they created measuring the proportion of cancer risk, across many tissue types, caused mainly by random mutations that occur when stem cells divide. By this measure, they concluded that two-thirds of the variation in adult cancer risk across tissues can be explained primarily by “bad luck,” when these random mutations occur in genes that can drive cancer growth. The remaining third of the risk is due to the environmental factors we talked about above and inherited genes.

So catching cancer is no one's fault. When I was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1995, and was convinced I'd done something wrong to get cancer, my gynecologist's reply was simple and to the point: "Sh*t happens."

The guilt immediately lifted from my shoulders, and I was able to get down to the business of dealing with the cancer. It is the same with the breast cancer. To paraphrase that gynecologist, stuff happens. So, no, I did nothing to 'catch' cancer. It just happened because of pure, dumb, bad luck. I tell my doctors that I am ducking and dodging death; that is all I can do. Guilt and blame will add nothing to this situation, and may make it worse.

So to all you out there who think you can catch cancer, you can't. Sure, you can decrease some risk factors by eating healthy, exercising and nursing your babies. And you can be aware of any family predisposition to cancer. But as the smart doctors of Johns Hopkins have shown, living life itself is a cancer risk factor. Instead of worrying about 'catching' cancer, go out and live your life. Meanwhile, I'll be here — ducking and dodging death, praying that the good luck of my cancer responding to treatment holds out. Because, really, in the end it's all about good luck and good medical care.

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