Wow, have I got a mad on. Last week a slew of articles made the online rounds, and after reading them and the reader comments, my blood is boiling. I want to talk first about an article which was posted on many news organization sites and other websites. The title perked me up: “Could Half of All Breast Cancers Be Prevented?” The premise of the piece was that half of breast cancers might be due to lifestyle choices. I’m willing to accept that there are certain things you can do to lessen your risk of breast cancer, but, as someone who was the epitome of health upon diagnosis, my jaw clenches when the “You can prevent breast cancer” tagline gets thrown around. The only thing that might have made my BCS (before cancer self) healthier is BCS me living in a remote, stress-free monastery practicing martial arts, yoga and meditation all day long, drinking pure spring water, sucking in unpolluted fresh air, and growing my very own sustenance in the form of an all-organic garden. Hey, I now live in Manhattan, so I can dream, right?? It sounds pretty awesome, but pretty unrealistic. At 37, I wasn’t ready to make that kind of leap, and two years later, I’m still not ready to make that leap. I want to live IN this world, not be apart from it. (And after that intro paragraph, I guarantee some readers are poised to type a reactive response, perhaps questioning if I was really healthy and really did everything to be healthier… I ask those readers to wait, and to read the rest of this before giving in to that response.)
What people are readily grasping onto is the HALF aspect…. Half of all breast cancers could be preventable. Half is not an insubstantial number and if we could wipe out half of all future breast cancer diagnoses by lifestyle choices, yes, yes, yes, let’s do everything we can to make it happen!! However, I think many choose to ignore the obvious counterpart of that figure… HALF are not preventable. And considering the number of breast cancers diagnosed each year, that half is still a staggering number. As a smoothie-chugging, juice-hogging, veggie lover with a serious craving for fitness adrenalin, I am stung when I hear the lifestyle argument as the reason for getting breast cancer. But it also stings because as a young survivor, I am connected to a host of other young survivors of many different forms of cancers. The lifestyle choice argument doesn’t hold much water when you see women developing breast cancer in their 20s and 30s and sometimes even in their teens. How can your lifestyle choices cause your cancer when your life as an adult has only just begun at age 24? When we start slinging around the “breast cancer can be preventable if you make wise choices” slogan, we run the risk of blaming people for their illnesses. And, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that none of the young sisters I am honored to know were diagnosed with cancer because they made bad lifestyle choices.
I devoured the reader comments of this article and was left shaking my head (and my little tiny fist of fury at some points). More than a few readers left exactly these types of blaming comments, along with other such helpful gems as “All cancers are preventable,” “Drink more green juice” and “Did you get immunizations? That must be the reason for your cancer.” Yeah, very unhelpful and personally offensive. But what really fired me up was a separate article, written perhaps in response to the first, titled “I Did Everything Right and I Still Got Breast Cancer.” The author is a doctor who is very honest about her response to her diagnosis at 47 and her treatment journey. And guess what? I know many of you may find this utterly shocking and it may challenge your world views (Sarcasm!), but her lifestyle choices were the “correct” ones and she still got cancer! OMG!
I was pleased to see the support the author received from readers, mostly from other survivors who totally got it, but about half the responses were people questioning if she really did everything right. Is she really a vegetarian? Did she wear make-up? Use personal bath products excessively? Use deodorant? Wear constricting bras? Sleep uninterrupted? Sniff glue as a child? Pull the toenails off of puppy dogs? It was a torrent of ugly “blame the victim” rhetoric. Never mind that millions of people worldwide do ALL these things daily (well, maybe not the glue sniffing and puppy maiming) and never develop cancer. And never mind that the judgmental people who wrote these questions probably have zero experience with cancer.
So many things are wrong with this all-too-common blame the victim response, and sadly, this response isn’t just on trendy health web sites (like the one this article appeared on) where people tend to be judgmental and overzealous. It’s all over the media that you can “prevent cancer.” Eat more vegetables! Take Vitamin Z! Burn your bras! Meditate 5 hours a day! Cut out all toxins! I’m poking gentle fun here, because I do believe many things can help overall wellness and health before cancer or after cancer, but seriously, if I had eaten any more vegetables in the decade leading up to my diagnosis, I’d have needed to be put out to pasture with the rest of the herbivores.
Blanket statements such as “You can prevent cancer” set up the logical conclusion that if you can prevent cancer… then anyone who gets cancer gets it because of something he or she did. A+B=C. Person A did/ate/thought certain activities/foods/negative images which led directly to her cancer diagnosis. If we take this to its linear conclusion, Person A practically deserves her diagnosis.
This ugly blame response is primarily a fear-based reaction to cancer. People need to think cancer is totally preventable and that people who get cancer did something wrong to get their cancer. To think otherwise opens up a vast chasm of fear and uncertainty. To think otherwise opens up the possibility that illness can be random and nonsensical, and if that is the case, then anyone could get cancer. YOU could get cancer…. And that’s too damn scary to contemplate. If my friend at age 37 got cancer because she has a family history, then, phew!, I don’t have to worry about that! Relief! But if my friend didn’t have a family history and still got cancer, then OMG!! I could also get cancer! Scary stuff, no? It’s terrifying to contemplate the randomness of cancer and it is far, far easier to blame the victim, thus feeling safe and secure in delusion.
My heart aches for a fellow sister in the breast cancer fight. It sucks, it’s horribly unfair, and very often it doesn’t make sense. But my heart aches most for her because she lives in a society where she feels the need, the pressure, to defend herself because she got cancer. She’s fighting cancer! Her fighting energy is needed for more important things. The last thing she needs to do is fight fearful, judgmental people who think she got cancer because she didn’t get enough sleep. It’s unwarranted, it’s ill informed, and it’s just plain selfish. To all these people I say: It’s not about you. It’s not about you. It’s not about you. Keep your fear to yourself.
Jennifer Jaye is an editor, writer, actress, yogini, former karate instructor, and in her newest role, a cancer survivor. She lives, works, and plays in Manhattan as she attempts to navigate life as a young survivor of breast cancer.