A breast cancer survivor shares her experiences with the BRCA gene.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Blame Game

Now that I'm facing the possibility that cancer is swimming around in my abdomen, I can't help but feel like I'm to blame somehow for igniting my BRCA gene. Was it because I didn't have kids? Lived in smoggy Atlanta? Drank diet Coke? All of the above?!

We love to blame ourselves. One of my doctors gave me some brilliant advice when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer: He said women often try to figure out what they "did wrong" to cause cancer...that if they could pinpoint a certain negative behavior, then they could have control over their body--and ultimately, their destiny.

But this is wishful thinking. Although there are lifestyle behaviors that enhance (or attack) our health, it's more complex as to why cancer forms. (See http://www.cancerquest.org/, an award-winning site developed by an Emory University professor who teaches the biology of cancer. His wife also is a breast cancer survivor.)

In fact, most of the people I know who have had some form of cancer have had the following in common: avid exercisers, healthy diets (vegetarian, wholegrain eaters, vitamin takers), water drinkers, non-smokers, juicers...and followers of all the Girl & Boy Scout rules.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my friends freaked out, saying that if I, Miss Health Nut, developed cancer, there was no hope for them. They were, in turn, junk food eaters, lax exercisers, recovering smokers and didn't follow all the Scouts rules. Yet, their checkups so far have turned up cancer-free, thankfully.

All to say is that you only have so much control over your body. Still, since I've had cancer, many well-meaning individuals (some friends, some strangers) have offered their advice as to "why I caused my cancer." This, I would like to point out, is not helpful. When you receive a terrifying diagnosis, the last thing you need is a prude shaking her finger at you, telling you that if only you had eaten wheat grass, you could have avoided cancer.

You also get a lot of advice about treatment -- if you take supplements, eat a raw food diet, practice yoga and meditate, then you will be cured! I've heard of women who refused chemotherapy in preferrance to an "all natural" treatment. I want to tell them that death is all natural. But I hold my tongue, knowing that everyone has the right to decide how they want to approach cancer.

Having said this, I recently received an email from a friend who believes I gave myself cancer and dispensed advice as to why I'm finding myself (possibly) in the same boat after 7 years of being cancer-free.

Frustrated and somewhat paranoid, I forwarded her email to a two-time breast cancer survivor who is also a healthcare writer for her thoughts on the matter. Is the fact that I might have cancer again the result of my bad behavior? Was it because I drank that second glass of wine on October 28th four years ago?!! I had to know.

Here's how my wise friends responded:

Hi Julie,
Count me as one of your friends who eats red meat, drinks wine, and has not given up sugar. I do try and make better choices and eat more fruits and vegetables. I eat an apple almost every day.

I believe what I read about nutrition having an important part in keeping us healthy. I try to eat more antioxidants, tomatoes, blueberries, brocolli, etc. I don't think it hurts, but I don't think it's the perfect answer, just like chemo or radiation aren't the perfect answer.

The body is an amazing thing, and I believe works to cure itself if you give it a chance. Sometimes it needs a boost from medicine, so I'm glad for all the advances they have made. I also think that stress and emotions have an awful lot to do with cancer and other illnesses.

Several years before I got cancer the first time were very stressful with sickness of family and other events, and I was feeling scared and hopeless, so for me, the best thing I can do is to find healthy ways to relieve stress, like journaling, praying, walking, talking with friends and asking God to handle things I don't know how to. What seems to help me more than what I eat or don't eat, is the food I put into my mind. It's a daily journey, but I do feel like I'm healthier now than I was ten years ago -- maybe not in body so much, as in mind.

And then, there's my friend, who is a lung cancer survivor, who handled her diagnosis this way: She stopped being a vegetarian and started eating meat.

My kind of girl.

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