Wondering ‘Why Me’ After a Cancer Diagnosis


I exercised and ate healthy, yet still received a cancer diagnosis, leaving me wondering, “why me?”

In the fall of 2022, my life was changed by a single phone call when I was diagnosed with stage 2 B-cell, non-specified, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare and aggressive cancer of the lymphatic system.

For me, a large tumor was growing in my left armpit. The tumor was damaging my ulnar nerve to the point that for more than a year my pinky and closest finger always hurt with a painful electric shock that never went away. I also lost feeling and most the use of both fingers. As the mass grew, the pain and intensity increased.

One local doctor thought it was a simple case of nerve impingement, something, perhaps in my elbow, was constricting the nerve and causing the pain. Another thought it was arthritis and gave me an anointment. Another thought it was related to my weightlifting in the gym, so he told me to stop lifting heavy weights.

Finally, after seeing three different local doctors who kept misdiagnosing my condition, I was referred to a specialist in a larger city who, in short order, ordered an MRI, a biopsy and a PET scan. Within days, I was told that I had cancer and that I would be dead in three months if I did nothing.

From that moment, I began my arduous journey down the foot-worn path trod by many before me, asking questions such as “Why me?” and “What did I do to deserve getting cancer?”

Fortunately, I was told that my cancer was curable with chemotherapy and immunotherapy. But because of the nature and the size of the tumor, my treatment had to be immediate and aggressive — only the strongest chemo would knock down the cancer.

John Smelcer at his first chemotherapy appointment

This photo was taken during John's first day of his first chemo cycle in September. He says, "The Superman t-shirt reflects how naive I was about the accumulating effects of chemo on my body. I thought I'd endure like a champion. I was wrong. I'm skin and bones today at 125 pounds."

Days after receiving the diagnosis, I was admitted to the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center at MU Health in Columbia, Missouri. For the next half year, I would spend a week in the hospital every month in the very capable hands of doctors, nurses, techs, radiologists and other caring staff.

During that time, my own mortality was never far from my thoughts. All I had to do was to look at the skeleton in the mirror to see death lurking over my shoulder.

Fortunately, the cancer responded positively to the chemo. A second PET scan between the third and fourth cycle revealed that the tumor was totally gone. I was, in effect, cancer-free. But, to be safe, I’d have to endure a few more cycles of chemo to make sure the lymphoma did not return or manifest elsewhere in my body. To prevent it from lodging in my brain, I endured numerous spinal infusions of specialized chemo.

But the question of “Why me?” was never been far from my mind. All my life, I had been a picture of excellent health. From my late teens to my mid-30s, I was a world-class athlete in powerlifting, setting numerous records. I also competed in body-building. In all those years, I never smoked (anything), never did drugs or drank a single beer, despite pressures from my peers. I rarely have a soda pop. Thanks to my wife, I eat a balanced diet.

On the other hand, my mother who has smoked packs of cigarettes a day since she was a teenager has not had cancer. (She continues to smoke even at her nursing home.) She frequently tells me that doctors say her lungs are healthy.

In the decades since I stopped competing worldwide, I have maintained my fitness to the point my primary physician constantly tells me that I was the fittest man of a “certain age” he had ever seen. But despite a lifetime of healthy choices, I got cancer anyhow. I did nothing to earn it.

I imagine every person who has ever been diagnosed with cancer asks the same questions: “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” Maybe there is no rhyme or reason. No one lives forever. I am reminded of something attributed to Jim Morrison of The Doors: “No one here gets out alive.”

On the other hand, we all want to live as long as we can, which reminds me of something a good priest-friend tells me almost every day: “We live to fight and fight to live.”

This post was written and submitted by John Smelcer, PhD, CAGS. The article reflects the views of John Smelcer, PhD, CAGS and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.

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