Deserving Cancer

In those first overwhelming weeks of diagnosis, seemingly endless tests, and the infusions of The Red Devil, I wanted to throttle Keith Richards. Yes—that Keith Richards, from the Rolling Stones. Why? Because a couple of comedians have pointed out that when an apocalypse happens, only Richards and some cockroaches will still be left alive. He is the symbol of rock and roll excess (or one of them, I’m letting Led Zeppelin slide today) and survival. He survives while so many other misbehaving rock stars overdosed, suffered, died. There he is, still on my TV, cancer-free. I needed someone to be angry at, and he fit the bill.

I’ve never done any illegal drugs and I’ve trashed nary a hotel room, yet here I am “punished” (that concept is up for debate in this post) with all this cancer. Oh sure, I’ve done some things I regret—who hasn’t? And while I haven’t been super-exercise-y and health-nutty, compared to a few folks I know, I’ve done pretty well. Well, before cancer that is, I kind of don’t give a shit anymore. But these friends and others I know who thrive on fried junk food are fine; no cancer, and here I am, I had all that cancer. And before anyone gets into a tizzy, no, I’m NOT wishing cancer on these other folks. It’s just with the amount of headlines on magazines in the grocery check-out line—eat this to prevent cancer, excess that causes cancer—the fact that I got cancer when those who indulge in less healthy habits didn’t, well, it can just be confounding. That is all I mean.

I’m talking about the physical, cause and effect, environmental factors for the most part, but I’m kind of talking about the karma aspect too. (Note—I know karma does not work like that, you get punished in your next life—but like most idiot Americans, I am misappropriating the meaning to get my point across). I know of too many stories of other cancer patients who did life all “right” while their relatives and friends have, um, done some shady things, and those folks are enjoying fine health. I know, it is not up to individuals to judge others. But when you are dealing with cancer, sometimes the pettiness of “why me and not them?” oozes out. Some folks, myself included, have asked: “What have I done to deserve this?”

The “why me” issue was a bigger deal for me back when I was in, and freshly out of, treatment. It is a little less so these days. In fact, I began writing this post in my very early days of blogging, but pushed it aside because I don’t grapple with the issue of what caused my cancer as much. But every now and then, something, or a few somethings, pop up to make me confront it again.

What really set me off was the announcement about DDT causing breast cancer. I happened to learn about it in this article, which finished with these irritating final sentences:

While it’s impossible for women to know how much DDT they were exposed to years ago or to go back and change things, there are still steps women can take to reduce their risk of breast cancer, says Karen Kostroff, chief of breast surgery for the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Lake Success, New York.

If you smoke, quit smoking. If you are overweight, work to lose some pounds, she suggests. “Focus on the things you can control,” she says.

While I understand the “no use crying over spilled milk” message Kostroff is sending, the emphasis on individual responsibility and the illusion of control makes me nuts. No, I’m not suggesting humans should be allowed to indulge in any “bad” behavior and not expect consequences. It’s just that when I see statements like this, I immediately read it as a way to blame patients. I ranted about this issue ages ago on this blog in Did You? (read it to understand my point in this post).

I don’t know about other breast cancer patients, but I needed NO encouragement to fall into the bad pattern of trying to figure out what caused my cancer. I remember listening to “Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History” by Florence Williams a while ago, specifically the part when she discussed exposure to plastics in young children. My mind immediately fled back to back to the summer of 1977; I was 5 going on 6, and I just witnessed the phenomenon of Star Wars. I began collecting the action figures. With great happiness I saved up allowance and chore earnings to add a new doll or spaceship toy to my little universe. Oh, the smell of freshly unpackaged Star Wars action figure—I would just inhale it and loved it the way adults love New Car Smell! (Yes, I still have my collection, unpackaged, so yes I understand they are “worthless”. But not to me.) I never played with Barbie or my life-like baby doll ever again. Growing up in the 70s was GREAT! Uh-oh, did my childhood nerd joy cause my cancer? The thought just kills my spirit.

But, hey, no use crying over the proverbial milk I spilled, right? My point is, the general population loves statements like Kostroff’s, they must; so they can convince their own selves that they are “safe”. It is fear that drives the blame. (Seriously just repeating myself here, read Did You?, my post from early 2014) Cancer and death are scary things, and the idea of doing everything “right” gives people a false sense of control, of security. I no longer have a sense of those things.

But it isn’t just the physical, environmental causes that are part of the blame game. A few random comments on this blog and elsewhere remind me that too many people buy into just world theory. The classic “cancer makes you a better, enlightened person” nonsense is wrapped up in this. Too many people say to me and others that cancer is some kind of wake-up call from the universe—to enjoy life, to re-prioritize, to value people, choose happiness, whatever. I’ve always hated that expectation of cancer-induced self-improvement, mainly because I did not seem to be improved. What is becoming clearer to me each day is how insulting that expectation is—for everyone.

What? So I was some intolerable person before cancer and I needed a threat from the universe to shape up? I was such an asshat I deserved cancer to put me in line? Am I as big an asshat as Keith Richards (or insert some other infamously bad behaving person who has not had cancer)? Are the people asking this question, or saying the “the universe was sending you a message” to cancer patients—what, are they perfect, and not in need of any life lessons, and that is why they do not have cancer?

I get it, I do. Some folks need to embrace the “everything happens for a reason” concept, I suppose it is a coping mechanism. For me it was the opposite, I found it emotionally damaging. While the idea that cancer, and by extension life and the universe, is random is scary for many, I find it comforting.  The strict adherence to rules, to one cause and one effect, makes me blame myself. Of course I understand that there were likely many contributing factors that caused my cells to divide too much and form a tumor. Some factors may have been the result of things I did (or didn’t do), and some were likely out of my control. But I am no better, and certainly no worse, than all those not “punished” by cancer.

Clearly, I am still bothered by the concept of blaming patients—why else would I still be writing posts about it? But here is the trick: I can read that statement from Kostroff, I can read comments on my social media from others being told cancer is some message from the universe, and I can recognize these things as damaging. And I can roll my eyes, take a breath, and not let my mind spin out of control with worry and self-doubt now.

These days, I am not gripped with an urge to injure Keith Richards (well, MOST of the time). I will always stand up to idiotic statements that imply cancer patients got what they deserved—and to the people who make such statements. But it hurts a little less.

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Author: Cancer Curmudgeon

Oct 2010 diagnosed with Stage 3, HER2+ Breast Cancer. Completed treatment Jan 2012. Waaaaaay over pink. Applying punk rock sensibility to how I do cancer.

23 thoughts on “Deserving Cancer”

  1. Great blog! I think all of us go through that “what caused my cancer” phase and try to put some meaning/blame to it in the beginning. It took me some time to realize that my cancer is the result of DNA mutations over time. That’s it. That’s all it is.

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  2. Well said! Many of us feel this way too. I didn’t say “All” of us because I came across an online cancer support group once where a guy practically admitted to the world that he deserved his cancer because he was bad with women. Yup. He was beating himself up. It is so sad that there are such “disturbed cultures” out there to the point of having the sick people feel horribly guilty about something they simply had no control over— this is also what religion does, no offense to anyone (writing about this topic too but from a cultural perspective).

    This is the one concept that still haunts me today. I have let go of many things that used to upset me, dumb comments by arrogant people who have no clue and who are most likely in denial about their own mortality. But this one is hard to digest because it is wrong on so many levels. It’s a cancer on itself, isn’t it? – A cancer with different levels of mutations. There is just too much wrong with this idea and it is so harmful. Once it becomes a cultural thing is hard to change. UGH!!!

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    1. I do find it hard at times to not blame myself and I think our warrior culture is a part of that. I dislike the general embracing of just world theory in other aspects too, not just “sick people deserve what they get”. But our culture is so wrapped up in it, and I doubt it will change.

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  3. Keith Richards is still alive??!! What caused my cancer? No idea…embrace the randomness theory, it delivers peace of mind! Oh and they know DDT causes Breast cancer how? In mice perhaps? Is there one case actually tied to one person who was exposed to DDT and otherwise lived a perfect life? So of course it was the DDT! I question all these reports now…

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  4. At least you bought the actual Star Wars action figures, and NOT the empty boxes they sold as “placeholders” so as not to miss the crucial Christmas season…

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    1. Oh wow, I would never have done that back then–a 6 year old needs immediate gratification! Plus, I always wanted to many–even the minor characters–that if one character was out of stock, I had never lacked for choices! Aww, I miss my action figures even tho’ there were primitive: these days figures bend at elbows and knees–my old dolls did not, but they were awesome to me, all the same!

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  5. Cancer does what it does. Sometimes there are no explanations or reasons for any of it. As you probably know, I have the darn brca2 mutation and technically something to blame my cancer on, but yet my siblings are all okay (thank goodness) thus far. Why me? I hate the blame game too. I read that DDT article and the part you quoted didn’t bother me. I don’t mind it when someone says focus on reducing your risk. It’s when I read all those headlines that proclaim to prevent cancer that I get annoyed. And as for that cancer was a wake up call and made me a better person and all that… I guess you know my thoughts on that. I think you’re right, that is downright insulting. I hadn’t thought of it like that before. Thanks for the post. Lots to think about here.

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    1. I prefer reduce risk to prevention too, but in this case, the line just hit me wrong.
      I think I’ve always found this issue insulting–after I got over beating myself up for not being some better, awesome version of myself as a result of cancer. I mean, I know people just “say” these things–just another case of words mattering more than we realize.
      Glad it was thought-provoking, that was a goal!

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  6. Great post! I think, still being in my first year of having and dealing with cancer, I want the answers. While I was thrilled that I tested negative for BRCA and other genes associated with breast cancer, I was disappointed that the genetic test didn’t provide answers for me and my family (many who have had breast cancer as well). I would like to know why this has happened to me. I really would like an answer. But then what? What would I do with that information if I had it?

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    1. Thanks! I hear you on wanting an answer–and wondering what would I do with such an answer. If it was my plastic childhood toys mentioned here, for example, what can I do about that? Nothing. Don’t want my happy childhood memories tainted anymore than they are now, as I sometimes think about it. So, I am learning to be comfortable with the unknown. I’m not able to get this comfort all the time; I think it will be a lifelong struggle. But, hey, better that than beating myself up.

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  7. As a breast cancer survivor, I have been where you are and I understand your antagonizing over why some of us get the diseases we do. Round and round I have fought myself to figure out if it were karma, genetics or just plain bad luck. When I released trying to figure out the why and began to just live, my life improved. I believe it’s also a bit of grief which is induced when we get stuck on wondering why ~ I have been there. I’m not a pollyanna about my cancer or anything else that I’ve endured. I had to work hard to accept where life has taken me and move on because being stuck in that mud just made me sicker, both physically and mentally. No judgment here, just throwing my experience into the fray as it were. ♥ I understand.

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    1. Oh thank you–I know you are not judging, and thanks! I don’t really think about it much anymore–I started this post about 2 years ago. It is more like, just an acknowledgement of all the little ways that subtly cause self-blame. And exploring that here on this blog does make me feel much better! Thanks for stopping by!

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      1. I’m glad to have read your blog post as I know we have all felt like that before under the circumstances and with cancer specifically. I am relieved you are not in that place anymore because it’s such a hard place to be in with all those thoughts swirling around your head. ♥

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  8. You make me laugh out loud, literally! I have stage 4 breast cancer and i love you!! You are my voice! Thank you for that! I love the raw truth, the sarcasm…. funny, funny!!! My favourite line today, “I kind of don’t give a shit anymore” 😊

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    1. Wow thanks! OMG I had to re-read this to see what exactly I don’t give a shit about–because there are many things. In this one it seems I was thinking might as well eat cake (or whatever) because I got cancer anyway and my cake-eating friends did not! Yeah, I still feel that way. There’s LOTS I don’t give a crap about these days!
      Anyway, glad I made you laugh, I think it is better to use a little humor to take the edge off of some of my thoughts I put out here, ya know?!

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