Why me? It’s a question I’ve pondered quite a lot over the last couple of years. Was my cancer in any way preventable? Given my (relatively) young age at diagnosis, I have thought long and hard about whether I did in fact cause my cancer, and if it is in fact all my own fault.
A couple of months ago cancer research launched a controversial campaign linking obesity and cancer, and as someone who has always been a bit of a curvy gal, who smoked for years, and who loves a nice glass of red, it triggered a lot of these feelings again, and a lot of questions about fault and blame.
The campaign received a lot of criticism for exactly these reasons, and the argument is a tricky one. The problem being that if obesity is a major cause of cancer, people should be made aware. However, in the society within which we live, this pretty much automatically translates as a finger-pointing, blame game.
“Ah, so that’s why she got cancer at the age of 40!” Which is not good, and has led to the accusations of fat-shaming, which I don’t believe was ever CRUK’s intention.
Who is to blame?
About the same time as the cancer research campaign came out, I read several articles about the fact that obesity and cancer are both symptoms of a society over dependent on processed foods and refined sugar, and that rather than blaming the obesity, and the individuals, we should be blaming the food regulations/manufacturers/advertisers as the root cause of the problem. It’s a compelling argument, and one I agree with to an extent, even though I do believe that we all have a level of responsibility in the choices we make.
Because the thing is, we know that being overweight isn’t good for our health – this is not new news. We also know that eating too much red meat, refined sugar, or saturated fats has been repeatedly been linked to all sorts of illnesses, not just cancer. Same with smoking, or drinking alcohol, or even taking drugs (although obviously the jury is out in cannabis on this one! LOL)
Does this stop us?
Um no… there are still millions of people doing all of these things all of the time despite the risk. I would lay money on the fact that even if you were able to accurately pinpoint which smoker would get lung cancer, which avid tanner will be affected by skin cancer, and which one wouldn’t, there would still be those that carry on regardless. I knew my whole life that smoking was bad for me, and could cause cancer, but that didn’t make the lure of a cigarette any less.
Because none of us ever really believe we will be affected until we hear those words “you have cancer” and even then, it is hard for it to sink in. Plus, in a world where cancer is portrayed as pink and fluffy and something that is regularly marginalised in media and society to make it more palatable for public consumption, none of us can really understand the true nature of cancer until we are directly affected by it.
On top of this, we like to think we are special, that we can beat the odds, that we are immune to the bad stuff, and can handle anything that is thrown our way. In short, we are invincible!
Life is short – sometimes even knowing something is bad for us, doesn’t stop the fact that it tastes or feels good, and we just want it. We humans are stubborn, intricate creatures with an inbuilt need to push boundaries, to swim against the tides, and a drive to disregard all else when we want something. The fact that we shouldn’t have something almost always makes us want it more.
We may not like to admit it to ourselves, but whether you are talking about the man who drinks too much or the obese woman who just can’t say no to pudding, you are talking about addiction, which is a complex business. The fact that having a beer after work or a piece of cake with coffee is socially acceptable, to the point where saying no can even cause offence in some social circles, makes it even harder to deal with. Food addiction often strikes me as the hardest of all – we have to eat in order to stay alive, and food is an intrinsic part of our society and how we interact with each other. Meeting friends for dinner, or a coffee, celebrating a birthday with cake… These are every day things that are a constant challenge for a food addict. Though maybe I am biased as this is my own worst vice…
Think about if a friend were to say to you “sorry, I’m not going to have that biscuit, because there is a chance that my doing so MAY cause cancer when I’m older” and think about what your standard response to that statement would be. Think about whether that thought would even cross your mind when contemplating that biscuit, or would you just think “mmmm, that biscuit looks really yummy!”
There are deep-seated psychologies at play here, peer pressure (this is not just confined to teenagers) a fair amount of genetics, and yes, a lot of big businesses all out to promote and sell their products using every tactic at their disposal – and who over the years have gotten really good at creating this want, this need, of tapping into our desires and our addictions.
And yet, when we do succumb, when we fall foul of that “want”, those same people who encouraged us to have “just one more glass of wine”, or a “tiny bit of pudding” can be very just as quick to judge. And if you are unfortunate enough to also get a cancer diagnosis in the mix, you can guarantee that (and particularly in light of the CRUK campaign) there will be a level of “well to be fair, you did bring it on yourself” amongst some people. AARGH!!!
But seriously, what caused the cancer?
I digress… so back to cancer. Why do we do this? Culturally, we are pre-disposed to point the finger, and place blame. We need answers. It makes things nice and neat. It provides a level of security and comfort. If we know that obesity “causes” cancer, then all the skinny people can breathe a sigh of relief that they are “safe” and sit in judgement of people who struggle with their weight. If a researcher in a lab makes a connection between red meat and cancer, then all vegetarians can sleep a bit easier at night.
And this is my major issue with the recent cancer research campaign. It makes every single person who has been affected by cancer and is/has been overweight, or has ever gone out and got drunk ,or smoked a cigarette, or even sunbathed without a generous slathering of factor 50, sit and think “Is this my fault? Did I do this to myself?” And overall feel shit about themselves, probably at a time when they could do without it!
Meanwhile, the “good” people who don’t do these things often ignore their symptoms, don’t get issues checked out and get late diagnoses because they imagine that they have found the secret to immunity.
The truth is that whilst any of these things, on their own or collectively, may well have been contributing factors, I can guarantee that there would be many other elements at play. Otherwise, why do skinny, non-smoking, tee-total vegetarians get cancer? And why was my Nan’s friend who was an overweight, chain smoker never affected?
Can smoking/weight/sun beds/too much red meat (delete and replace as you wish) be linked to many of these cases? Of course! People much smarter than me have already made these links, and I’m not trying to dispute these facts. Is it as straight-forward as saying don’t do these things, and you will live a long, happy, cancer-free life? Of course not!
Let’s just outlaw everything that is bad for us
If it was so easy and so black and white, curing cancer would be simple. We could all just become vegan, tee-totallers who don’t smoke, drink only turmeric laced water, workout regularly and do lots of yoga and simply eradicate cancer for good. In fact, why don’t the governments just outlaw it all and make exercise mandatory. The truth is that, people would still get cancer, and people would still die from it.
Cancer is scary, and the reasons why one person will get it and another will not is (based on our current levels of knowledge) completely out of our control. That is even scarier. It doesn’t fit with our world view of cause and effect. So we try to explain, justify and find cause, so we can reassure ourselves that we will be fine.
Should we try to make sure that we are giving ourselves the best chance of a long, happy, healthy life? Well duh! Eat more veg, less red meat, exercise more, drink water instead of wine? Obviously! Should we blame ourselves if we didn’t do all these things and then we got ill? No!! Because it is really not that straight forward.
Let’s not sit in judgement of those that don’t do all these things. Let’s accept that there are many things out of control in life, and that we are not all supposed to live till 100 years old. Let’s work to get rid of some of the root causes of addiction – mental health, poverty, cultural influences, and manipulation by greedy corporate companies focused on making their fortunes, and offer a little bit of compassion and understanding rather than pointing the finger and allocating blame
Finally, lets accept that sometimes, just sometimes that piece of chocolate or glass of wine is worth more to the soul in that moment than the chance to live forever.
Did I cause my cancer?
NO! A perfect shit-storm of many factors, some within my control, many outside of it, plus a portion of crappy luck caused my cancer. Did I contribute towards it? Maybe, who cares!?! It doesn’t really matter now that the horse has bolted. My view (on my logical days) is to stop torturing myself needlessly about things which may or may not be something I can do anything about, and focus on getting better and moving forward instead.
If you are sat asking the same questions, and have the same judgey voice running commentary in your head, I recommend giving yourself a break and doing the same. In fact, fuck it, why not pour yourself a nice glass of wine and toast to it!