Did I Give Myself Cancer?

It’s a question you’re going to ask yourself sooner or later. If not this question then a version of it. “Why did I get cancer?” “What caused my cancer?” “What could I have done to avoid cancer?” But honestly, the big question is this one.

Did I give myself cancer?

Was it the smoking? Cigarettes are a group one carcinogen and known to contribute to all sorts of cancers, including breast cancer. There are still people that think smoking will only increase your risk of lung cancer. They don’t know how to google. Kim and Donna taught me to smoke when I was thirteen. They were in the year above me at school. I wonder if either of them have cancer.

But I gave up over ten years ago. All the hype around giving up said that after ten years my cancer risk would be the same as everyone else’s. Still, the years of smoking can’t have helped.

Maybe it was side stream smoke. Both my parents smoked. Dad smoked a pipe. I used to sit on his lap while he smoked it. Mum smoked Alpine menthol cigarettes. I associated the smell of tobacco smoke with home.

Most of my early jobs involved work environments full of smoke including bars and restaurants, back when they used to be full of smokers. I’m always fascinated by the research that proves side stream smoke is even more dangerous than smoking. If that’s true, how did they ever establish smoking as a risk? Shouldn’t the people around the smokers have been the ones getting cancer? Anyway, the side stream smoke can’t have helped.

Maybe it’s genetics. My Dad died of cancer at fifty eight. But it wasn’t the same type of cancer. He had bladder cancer. They tell me nobody dies of bladder cancer any more. He just got it a decade too soon. I wonder how soon they’ll find a cure for triple negative breast cancer. I hope it’s not ten years after I’m dead. Maybe having a parent with any kind of cancer makes it more likely that you’ll get cancer. But my mother is nearly eighty and really well for her age so I could just as easily have inherited her DNA. And she smoked for years.

It could be the drinking. Why did I have to get cancer to find out that alcohol is a group one carcinogen, just like cigarettes? How come the only friend I know that has ever had breast cancer is also the one that turns up with lots of wine? I used to be a police officer and after work drinking was not just about relaxing after work, it was also a way to be accepted in a male dominated profession. Being able to ‘drink like a man’ was an asset if you wanted to fit in. Of course I’ve also had long period of time where I didn’t drink or drank very little. Pregnancy, breast feeding and looking after a little human all involved giving up alcohol. I think my daughter was five before she saw me affected by alcohol and that was an accident. I had no idea the lemon and vodka mixers my friend was serving up had so much alcohol in them. Even so, in recent years my husband and I have regularly split a bottle of wine over dinner and it turns out that’s enough to double my risk of breast cancer, so the alcohol can’t have helped.

It’s certainly not any kind of drug taking because I’ve never been into recreational drugs. I don’t think I’ve ever been exposed to high risk substances but then Dad and I used to have fun in the garage restoring old furniture and all those solvents are bad for you. Of course it turns out that cannabis might have some kind of preventative effect against cancer but it hasn’t been conclusively proven and the tradition of mixing it with tobacco and smoking it probably counteracts any benefit. Still, it makes you wonder about all the things you didn’t do that might have prevented cancer.

Maybe I should have had more children. Having children or, more accurately, being pregnant, seems to reduce the risk of breast cancer. Of course I know of women with four or more children that still get breast cancer but more children might have protected me. I also developed mastitis when I was breast feeding and the tissue never fully recovered. The mastitis was in the same breast as the tumours so who knows if there’s a link.

Maybe I should have given up red meat, or food additives, or sugar, or food colouring, or any kind of cleaning product other than a micro fibre cloth. But we’ve been eating really well for a very long time. We’ve paid extra for organic vegetables and meat. You won’t find any soft drink in our fridge. But then the fluoride in the water could be to blame, except that I grew up in an area that only added flouride recently and now we have tank water. Maybe it’s the tank water.

It could be something to do with having a vitamin D deficiency for so long. Of course, I got that from covering up in the sun to prevent skin cancer. Get sun. Don’t get sun. It seems there’s no winning with this one. My surgeon used to be sure that vitamin D was a critical factor but now she tells me the evidence isn’t compelling. Maybe if I just get sun on one half of my body from now on.

Maybe it’s the Wifi that zips through our steel framed house so we can all have access to the internet. We’ve got a family friend with a PhD in electrical engineering and he’s sure that wireless is causing all kinds of cancers. He’s loaned me a couple of books but they’re short on causal link. Just because two things happen at the same time doesn’t mean that one causes the other. Still, should we go back to plugging in our devices? Should I give up blogging? Maybe the laptop is killing me. Or the microwave. Or chem-trails left by jets.

Perhaps it’s my weight. Obesity is a known risk factor for cancer. The thinner you are the less likely you are to have tumours. But I’ve never been obese. I was naturally thin all the way up to my first pregnancy. After that my body wanted to add another ten kilos, no matter what I did but I was never seriously overweight. I haven’t been a regular at the gym until about five years ago when I found a wonderful yoga class but I’ve always been a busy, active person. I walk too fast and find it hard to sit still.

Maybe it’s stress. I spent twenty years in a very stressful occupation, particularly the part of it involving child protection work. I was so stressed I eventually retired medically unfit for duty. But the recent research says stress doesn’t give you cancer. Still, all that stress can’t have helped my immune system very much.

I wonder if my eating pattern contributed to anything. When I was young I used to skip breakfast and eat dinner early. These days they call that ‘intermittent fasting’ or ‘having a longer fasting window’ so perhaps that stint I had at Weight Watchers where they insisted that I eat breakfast is part of the problem. Having a longer gap between your last meal of the day and your first meal of the day gives your body a chance to clean up any damaged cells, like the ones that become cancer. Ironically, it seems to also help you to stay a healthy weight.

According to Louise Hay I gave myself cancer. I’ve been holding on to resentment or hatred. I suppose the cancer came back because I was sill holding on to resentment or hatred, according to her. Except that anyone that knows me will tell you I’m chronically optimistic. I love my life and all of the people in it. If I’m harbouring any cancer-causing resentment it’s undetectable. I guess the advantage of Louise’s philosophy is that dead people can’t argue with her and living devotees don’t want to.

Maybe I should have practiced more positive thinking. It seems to be the one thing that everyone tells you to do when you have cancer. “Stay positive!” they say and so you wonder if that means you’re not already perceived as someone who’s positive, or if they think that you already are and should stay that way. Of course positive thinking is supposed to have an impact on everything from your immune system to your longevity but nobody has been able to conclusively prove through a double blind human trial that it can make any difference at all to your recovery from cancer. And anyway, I am positive!

Maybe the garden gave me cancer. I remember a couple of years back when a storm brought down a tree and decided to prune back the branches. I gathered up a bunch of leafy twigs and bent them back to cut through them. Some of them flicked back as I cut them and stabbed me in the chest, just about where my tumours ultimately formed. I can remember having this thought at the time, “If that scar tissue turns into cancer I will have been killed by a tree! Me, who has planted so many trees!” I don’t even know if scar tissue makes me more susceptible to cancer. It was probably just my brain being adventurous.

One of the most interesting things about having cancer is all of the different people I’ve met while I’ve been having treatment. I’ve met women that have never smoked and women that have never consumed alcohol, or consumed it only occasionally. I’ve met women with lots of children and women with none. One of the fittest women I’ve met had different kinds of cancers in both her breasts. Some of these women have been older than me and some have been younger. Some are doing everything they can to prevent recurrence and others are partying hard.

When I look around me I see women that are seriously overweight that don’t have cancer and women that smoke a packet a day and don’t have cancer and women that drink a bottle of wine or more a night and don’t have cancer.

Did I give myself cancer? What I know for sure is that nobody knows. Any one of the things I’ve been exposed to might have contributed and it might also be none of these things. Nobody with breast cancer can ever be sure. Even people with one of the ‘cancer genes’ don’t necessarily get breast cancer. It’s a lottery.

So if, like me, you’ve spent time wondering what you did wrong, here’s my proposal. Instead of wondering what I might or might not have done to get cancer I’m going to focus on what I can reasonably do to prevent it coming back.

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