Did I Cause My Cancer?


Like many people who receive a cancer diagnosis, one survivor questions the reason.

Sitting in the oncologist’s office, I could hear the white paper on the exam table beneath me crinkle as I shifted nervously. It would be a just few more minutes before the doctor would be with me, according to his medical assistant. The wait seemed like an eternity. My eyes scanned the room for reading material. On the walls were several brochures with breast cancer statistics. I didn’t want to read those. Before I could find something to take my mind off the wait, I heard a gentle knock at the door.

The doctor came into the room with a chipper, “Hello, how are you today?” He extended his hand and I took it. Pulling over a small rolling stool, he sat very close to me. “The reason for today’s visit is to go over a treatment plan and explore options,” he explained.

I listened carefully as the doctor went over the test results. When he’d completed that, he folded his arms and leaned back as he asked if I had any questions. I had no idea what to ask, all of this was so new to me, so I just sat quietly.

“You know,” he said, “by the time you found the mass in your breast, it had probably already been there for 10 years or more.” My eyes must have widened at that statement because he rolled closer and said, “It’s true. Many times, before a lump can be felt with the fingertips, it’s been growing for a while.”

Ten years! I tried to think back on all the things I’d done in the past 10 years. I wondered if there had been some way that I’d contributed to the breast cancer or if perhaps I’d done something to cause it. We had no history of breast cancer in my immediate family so I knew genetics didn’t play a role. But there were other things, environmental things, that could have been a factor.

In the late ‘80s, I worked for a local florist, a family owned business, that operated from an older home. Scuttlebutt among employees was that the interior of the home was laden with asbestos, a known carcinogen, but none of the management would ever admit it. I worked there for eight years, eight hours a day. Was that the start of my problem? Could asbestos exposure have been the reason behind my breast cancer diagnosis?

I also remembered, at our last home, we’d had a terrible problem with an overgrowth of poison ivy on our large wooded lot. To get rid of it, I purchased some powerful weed killer and used it regularly. A few months ago, I heard on the news that the popular weed killer had been pulled from store shelves because it contained a known carcinogen. Could that have been what started my cancer?

And recently I got a text alert from the Food and Drug Administration regarding a recall on the blood pressure medication I’d been on for many years. It was being recalled for “a probable human carcinogen.”

As the doctor continued to talk, I sat on the exam table, present but not. Thoughts like that kept streaming into my mind. What if all those years of coloring my hair, using aerosol sprays or ingesting red dye contributed to the breast cancer?

The doctor reigned me back in as he said, “We may never know what caused your cancer, the fact is, we’ve found it and now we have to do what we can do to get rid of it.”

Leaving his office, I continued to think of all the products I used on a daily basis that could be carcinogenic. In my car vents, I had those little scent filled pods to help make the interior smell fresh and clean. I yanked those out and threw them in the trash, just in case.

When I got home, as I pulled into the garage, I noticed cans of paint on the shelves. Beside them was a large can of paint thinner. Opening the car door, I got out and went over to that can. I turned it around and began to read. In tiny print were words that said, “Harmful vapors. Use in a well-ventilated area.” Thankfully, there were no cancer risk warnings.

Inside my home, I went on a rampage looking for any and everything that might cause cancer. As I was tearing through my house, I realized I was becoming cancerphobic, but I had good reason. The words from my oncologist kept echoing in my ears.

In my craft room, I began looking through materials and found a tube of adhesive I use on a regular basis. Reading the words on the back of the glue shocked me: “This product can expose you to chemicals including perchloroethylene, which is known in the state of California to cause cancer.” That tube immediately went into the trash.

When I’d completely cleared my house of any products that may or may not have contributed to the cause of my cancer, I realized there was something else I needed to do.

For years, my grandmother had told me it wasn’t good to use an electric blanket. Did the swirling current of electricity that powered my blanket cause cancer?

I had to stop this madness! I was overly stressed worrying about the reasons behind my diagnosis.

I assumed the doctor was right when he said, we may never know what caused my cancer. Try as I might, I would probably never know the cause and while I may have eaten, smelled or done something that contributed to the cancer, it wasn’t my place to shoulder that responsibility.

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