As humans, we have an inherent need to know why everything happens in our life — including a cancer diagnosis. But unfortunately, that is not always the case.
Let me start out by saying that I am very well aware that there have been studies that show that some cancers can be linked to a specific cause.
For example, there is a scientifically demonstrated direct line of causation between smoking and lung cancer, and although not all smokers get lung cancer and not all who have lung cancer are smokers, it is the first thing many people think of when they hear someone has been diagnosed.
There is a need in us as humans to find a reason for something to have happened because we are very uncomfortable living in a world where we can be struck at random. It is much easier for non-smokers to think they will never get lung cancer because they don’t smoke than to acknowledge that they could walk into a doctor’s office one day with a cough, like many non-smoking lung cancer patients do, and come out with a referral to an oncology team.
When my daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer at 27, the first thing that came to mind for everyone involved was the BRCA gene. Although there is zero history of early breast cancer in either of her bloodlines, it was recommended that she undergo testing to see if there was a genetic factor at play in her diagnosis. The tests results came back negative with the caveat that science is making new discoveries every day so that story could change in the coming years.
So back to the drawing board.
Because I am one of the humans I wrote about above, the idea that breast cancer could randomly strike my daughter was incredibly difficult to reconcile. I looked to things that I had done or hadn’t done when raising her that might have contributed to her diagnosis. Did I feed her too many processed foods? Not likely, since she was born with a peanut anaphylaxis, so I had to make everything from scratch. What about the medications that the specialist put her on when she was little to help her breathe? Did I say yes to something that kept her alive and well back then only to have it contribute to something that was threatening her life now? Did she spend one time too many in an X-ray machine checking to see if she had pneumonia…again? Did we spend too much time outside, or too little? Did I breastfeed her too long, or not long enough? Did I add too much stress to her life when I agreed to let her dance all the disciplines at the studio one year and take exam classes for four of them? Did I do anything at all to cause my child such suffering?
And here is the answer: no. A hard no.
A cancer cell doesn’t act like a normal cell. It starts to grow and divide out of control instead of dying when it should. Although there are many different types of cancer, they all start because of cells that are growing abnormally and out of control. No one can predict the when or how this blip of nature happens. Yes, there are things that can trigger or speed up the process and those can be avoided, especially if there is a history of cancer in the family. But for so many people who are diagnosed with cancer, there is no known place or action for the finger of blame to point at. Cancer can, unfortunately, just happen. Like it just happened to my child.
I think this is one of the things about the survivorship bubble that makes it so trying to live inside of it, and so difficult for those who are on the outside of it to understand. If you are the person diagnosed with cancer, you have to reconcile that you can do all the right things and still have this happen to you. And once it has happened to you, you also have to come to terms with the fact that it can happen to you again. That no matter how much kale you eat or positivity you have in your life or miles you run or walk every day it can still take you out. As a caregiver, if you accept that cancer randomly struck someone you love, you must also acknowledge that it can come back, that it can just as easily strike someone else you love, or you. The truth of the matter is that regardless of how we wish that there was a reason for everything, that something good will always come from something bad, sometimes s**t just happens. And cancer is a big pile of…
You get the picture.
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