Many of my patients understandably wonder and ask, “Why did I get cancer?” I do not necessarily have a medical or scientific answer. I wonder if the question behind the question is, “Why me?” From that question comes others: “Why now? Can it happen again? What can I do to prevent that?”
There are certain risk factors that predispose one to cancer. These factors (including genetics, environment, and lifestyle) are also associated with poorer outcomes for certain patients. However, there is not always a cause-effect relationship.
My late mentor taught me a simple way to explain the different levels of cancer risk; it can also be applied to those who carry a cancer diagnosis. On the one end is the general population for whom gender/age appropriate cancer screening guidelines apply. On the other end are those whose families transmit the cancer gene. For this group, we have proactive and comprehensive approaches to try to decrease the risk. Lastly, is the in-between group whose cancer risk is unknown. These are people who have had one cancer diagnosis. This puts them at an undefined higher risk than the general population to get another cancer, but at lower risk than those who harbor the cancer gene. (Unfortunately, data is lacking for those “in-between” individuals, so we resort to general population guidelines).
Even though we are in the 21st century, nature and our bodies remain a mystery with many unknown variables. Sometimes we just really don’t know why cancer happens to you or why it happens when it does. Questions that probe the why are good, though. Our why questions reflect how we cope with our diagnosis and try to make sense of it. They indicate our curiosity to try to understand the mystery of life. This is healthy as long as we acknowledge that life’s mystery is one that likely won’t be unraveled entirely for another few generations, if ever.
A cancer diagnosis never comes at the right time. (If not now, when?) It can happen to anyone. (If not you, who?) As the current pandemic teaches us, we are not invincible or immortal. Life is not fair. Embrace your curiosity and let it empower you without letting it overwhelm you.
Be kind to you and others….
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