I will be quick to say that someone blaming me for my cancer almost never happens. I’m glad, because such a conversation, would really piss me off. People have been extremely generous and compassionate. There have been only a few hints of such an attitude. It is usually from an acquaintance rather than a close friend. They often ask, as soon as I tell them why I am now bald, “How old are you? Were you a smoker?”
I know where these people are coming from and it is something that crosses all our minds when we hear of a medical tragedy in someone else. It is because we don’t want to have the same happen to us and we are looking for a rational reason why it can’t.
Of course, there are some cancers linked to human behavior, but even those are not a slam dunk. We are all familiar with the relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancers (plus other cancers) such as non-small cell lung cancer. The relationship between the two is clearly established. But there are people who have never come near a cigarette and developed it and others who smoked from age 12 to 105 and whose lungs faired relatively well (which is uncommon). I could list several other cancers that have some connection to human behavior.
However, most cancers, including mine (multiple myeloma or MM), after decades of study, have few connections to human behavior and those are sketchy. The only relationship is that MM is slightly more prevalent in wood workers (carpenters) and those who have worked around pesticides or petroleum products. I have done a lot of home remodeling in my life. However, even those who work daily as professional carpenters for their entire lives only have a slight increase in MM. Regarding petroleum products, we all have pumped gas. I have restored a couple of cars which including messing with petroleum-based fluids, but even the professionals who work in the center of huge refineries have only a slight increase risk of MM.
MM, like most cancers, is due to a genetic mutation. No one on this planet understands why this happens. We have between 20,000 and 25,000 genes in our body, and it the case of MM, only one single gene folds the wrong way, starting this entire nightmare.
Our bodies are constantly having gene mutations. Most of them are harmless, and even some are beneficial. As Dr. Lewis Thomas describes in his great book, The Medusa and the Snail, if it was not for gene mutations, we would not be who we are. Now, you can take this from an evolutionary perspective or intelligent design. The body is constantly experimenting with our genes to make a better us. It is like rocket scientists trying to get the maximum thrust from the liquid fueled rocket engine. They try to turn up the pressure in the main fuel pump and the entire thing explodes. Well, that didn’t work. Then they turn the pressure up, but not as much. Finally, they are able to increase the thrust without the explosion.
In the case of MM, the genetic error of folding happens in one of the many genes that make plasma cells in the blood. Plasma cells are a good thing, producing antibodies that keep us healthy and free from most infections. If the error in folding, like I have, was a good thing, making our antibodies even better, we would live longer and healthier. However, the problem is, once this error of folding happens, the cells start mass-producing the plasma protein without limits. That’s where the problem occurs.
There are two types of belief systems, in my opinion, that tend to make people want to blame the victim of cancer for their plight. I would put both under the heading of a “Prosperity-Perspective.”
One of those belief systems is in the evangelical branch, known as “Prosperity Gospel.” They believe that all things happen for a reason and has intrinsic meaning. Things like cancer, within that system, are usually due to “sin in your life” or your lack of faith or prayer. Sometimes they see it as God giving you this awful disease to teach you something like patience. That type of God seems more like a Nazi to me.
The more common (at least outside of the south) Prosperity-Perspective is the erroneous belief that if you are a “health nut” that you will live to a ripe old age without any of these diseases. I hear that attitude a lot. These people exercise like crazy, eat very healthy and take a lot of “cancer-preventing” supplements. While exercise (the latest figures is about 2 miles of walking per day) does seem to help prevent heart disease, the benefit in preventing cancer is not so clear. While I see some benefit for some things in “Alternative Medicine,” it is hard to even have a conversation with those folks because they immediately start to blame my lifestyle for my cancer and start quoting their “medical information,” which has no basis in research . . . none. I don;t like making stuff up on the fly.
Unfortunately, while a healthy lifestyle has a marginal benefit in preventing some cancers (it is subtle) there is no diet or supplements that have convincing proof of benefit (see here). I know this flies in the face of most people’s belief systems, but the claims about supplements and diet are made to sell you supplements and books. These days, there is far more misinformation about health out there than good information. Additionally, there is no evidence that sugar has anything to do with cancer, while there are lots of books and gurus (who have no scientific training) who make these claims. Sugar has always been the health-nuts whipping boy. Sugar’s main downfall is that is represents empty calories (without other nutritional benefit). But, without sugars (of all types) we would be dead in seconds as it is–like it or not–the fuel for our bodies. But limiting sugar reduces obesity, which in turn does have health benefits. The only sugar I’ve ever used is to lightly sweeten my tea. Never in coffee (may God forbid).
The one diet that has some benefit for heart disease and may have some benefit (again, it is subtle if true) in preventing some cancers is the Mediterranean diet. But this was the diet I’ve been on for years. I also ran, three days a week, with my longest run being 6.5 miles.
As a headache specialist, the one message that I’ve always have tried to give my patients is, “Your headaches is not your fault.” That is true 90% of the time. The only exceptions are when people take too many pain killers, their headaches tend to get worse. The other, and I’ve had a few patients like this, who have professions or hobbies that cause them to get repetitive head injuries (I’ve had several boxers and those who do X-game type sports and don’t wear a helmet). But for all the rest, such my migraine patients, it is also due to a genetic mutation, over which they have no more control than they do over the color of their eyes. Life is not fair, is it?