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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