Did I Cause My Cancer Diagnosis?


Lasting guilt gets no one anywhere — especially when it comes to cancer.

cartoon drawing of blogger and AML survivor, Mary Sansone

This submission is difficult to write, but I feel the following sentiments are important to share with this community.

Did my past behaviors and consumptions cause my cancer? It is a dreadful thought.

Many people with healthy lifestyles have suffered from this disease. So many were unaware for a good deal of their life, if not all, about the risk of getting cancer from asbestos, genetics, certain foods, chemicals, etc. The cancer-causing list was and is always changing, mostly growing.

But billboards went up, commercials were made, articles were written, and news anchors reported about proven cancer-causing villains like alcohol abuse and tobacco usage. How do those of us who were warned that some of our vices could increase the risk of cancer deal with a diagnosis?

Shame may pervade the soul.

“Just quit.” I heard this relentlessly through my drinking and smoking addictions, ad nauseum. If nausea, shaking and sweating were all I had to experience in order to withdraw from alcohol, I might have been brave enough to try much earlier in my adult life. However, I was terrified of feeling the mental anguish that comes with detox.Depression should not be part of the human mental repertoire! Without my crutches, my heart and brain felt suffocated as though they were buried alive.

Eighteen years prior to my first diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia, I was an abusive drinker. In 1998, I went to renowned treatment center in Minnesota for nine months and entered the glorious world of recovery. Eighteen sober years later, I got leukemia.

When in substance abuse treatment, I was jolted into uncomfortable vulnerability. Insecurities were exposed. I was drenched in shame and embarrassment. I had to navigate an un-scythed path to rejoin the living. Fun, sex, sadness, sober? Say what? I picked up smoking to alleviate the crippling anxiety that came with living life on life’s terms.I am not going to lie — smoking helped. I was willing to accept this crutch if it meant I would not freak out and possibly drink. And truth be told, I enjoyed it.

I slowly but miraculously convalesced from alcoholism with time, therapy and mental health prescriptions.

I thrived in sobriety! I loved life. But I continued to struggle with the smoking addiction. I would put down and pick up over the years.

Then came the leukemia cancer diagnosis.I did not get lung cancer, but I got cancer, nonetheless.

One night, a sibling said to me, “I’m 99% sure your cancer was because of your smoking.” And another sibling said, “me too.”

They may be right. Or wrong. There is a chance that the sugar in my coffee, pollution, dry-cleaning chemicals, the supernatural, the devil, char-grilled steak, fate, Mother Nature, genetics, or burnt toast caused my cancer. Only God knows.

When accusations were expressed out loud by my loved ones, I felt indescribable shame. I wanted to say, “Leave me alone. You have issues too!” (They do – I say lovingly.) But inside I felt that my unhealthy fixation trumped any of their bad habits. I was caught. That, my friend, is humiliating. Disappointing loved ones is a therapy topic that can last a lifetime.I’m still trying to measure up. Or let it go.

We were warned about smoking for a long time now. Not only did I have to deal with the nagging feeling that I caused my cancer by smoking despite the warnings, but I had to address the feeling that I deserved my cancer.

Anyone else ever wonder that? I hope not; it’s a violent feeling.

I believe there is such a thing as healthy guilt – the kind that catapults you to make a positive change, then allows you to forgive yourself and move on. On the other hand, living in lasting guilt — even after a change — does no good for anyone.

I did a lot of good, if not great things in my life. After getting sober, I took care of myself in many meaningful ways. I worked on improving my kindness, generosity and contributions to earth, animal and mankind. I became a fanatic about wildlife. I gave to charities. I worked hard and was great at my job. I laughed a lot. I prayed. I made meaningful relationships. I volunteered. I tried to be a wonderful wife, daughter, sister, dog owner and friend. Smoking did not wholly define me.

To live with myself in a post-cancer life, I needed to quit smoking and change behaviors, practice self-love, and be gentle with myself when I faltered.

Being sober for others has its rewards.But the pleasure really happens when I find myself alone and make the right decision. I AM ALONE AND DOING THIE RIGHT THING! An otherworldly sweet pride, that has a little bit of gentle pain attached, makes my heart warm. I feel like I am receiving a private gift from a higher power. This emotion is one of the most powerful spiritual experiences for me.

Addictions can be disgusting, but they are also complicated. It might be good to humbly remind yourself of your own imperfections. Empathy, understanding and encouragement without scolding may help. Remind yourself of unconditional love. And pray.

I don’t know if I caused my cancer.

We are all imperfect. We are all more than just our bad habits. We can all make changes. And no one deserves cancer.

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