This is the third instalment of Adventures in Lymphomaland, a four-part series appearing Mondays. Share your cancer story here
While making my way through Lymphomaland, I try to spend as little time as possible in the State of Blame. But sometimes I take a wrong turn, and there I am.
What did I do wrong? How did I give myself cancer? Was it years of disordered eating? Was it growing up in a high-strung, unpredictable family? Too much sugar or aspartame? Year-round barbecuing? Having children late? Inhaling the fumes in too many new cars?
Of course, blame feeds self-loathing, and I'm sure self-loathing is carcinogenic. So it's a bit of a lose-lose exercise and a colossal waste of time. If only the fear of wasted time deterred time-wasting activity.
My first reaction when I was handed my diagnosis was anger at the doctors – at my GP who reassured me with confidence it was nothing (but still sent me for the ultrasound); at the gynecologist who had examined me months earlier and didn't find anything (the woman should never be hired to search for drugs at a border crossing). But ultimately, I find myself thinking it's my fault. My neglect, my oblivion, my laziness, my entire being is blameworthy.
Others also feel the weight of blame. Debra Sherman, a health correspondent who tweets and blogs about her lung cancer for Reuters, at Cancer in Context, talks openly about the judgment surrounding lung-cancer patients, and the impact that has on funding for research and development. There are cancers that are the darlings of the family and cancers that are the black sheep and get no pretty ribbons, or maybe just beige ones.
A friend whose mom died of the disease felt the judgment all the time. "Did your mom smoke?" people felt justified in asking. Yes, she did, and screw you. Tons of people who smoke don't get lung cancer and folks who don't smoke, do.
Regardless of this fact or the fact that we inhale and ingest carcinogens that we had no role (other than, perhaps, complacency) in pumping into our environment, people see fit to be smug and judge those who brought it on themselves as a little less worthy of concern and sympathy.
Life causes cancer. I walk my son to school every morning, inhaling the exhaust of a downtown stroll, wondering what my body is doing with all the fumes. I got busy once and forgot I was boiling the "tumour-shrinking" antioxidant dandelion tea I now drink daily. The dandelion chunks burnt to a crisp. I only noticed when the smell wafted up to the second floor. Charcoal is carcinogenic. Even if it's burnt dandelion tea, maybe it can kill you. (It's particularly lethal if you leave it on the stove, to catch fire and burn your house down.)
But while it causes cancer, life is also the only place to seek the cure – physiological, spiritual, attitudinal – and there are thousands on offer. I now religiously consume things I'm convinced will undo the damage I've caused. I was at a "health food store" (until now it never occurred to me to find that name odd; should other stores I've frequented for decades be called "disease shops?") talking to a friend about an article I'd read proclaiming the toxin-eliminating properties of baking soda. A young woman nearby piped in with the magical 3:1 ratio of baking soda and Epsom salts required for postchemo baths. I don't ask for her credentials. For all I know, she works for Arm & Hammer. I rush home to soak.
There's a whole school of blame and shame that purports to start the healing process by telling us we bring on disease ourselves. Only through daily affirmations, they say, can we change the direction our tragic lives are taking.
A friend sent me an article drawn from the world of self-help through spiritual understanding and renewal related specifically to blood-borne cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma. Among its claims: "When a person is afraid of life, feels unsafe, does not give expression to their ideas, becomes withdrawn and experiences a lack of joy, they may be prone to blood-related illnesses."
The article cites the famous self-help guru Louise Hay, who offers specific insight into the thought patterns that may lead to lymphomas. She correlates lymphomas with "a tremendous fear of not being good enough, a frantic race to prove one's self until the blood has no substance left to support itself. The joy of life is forgotten in the race for acceptance."
What I glean from this article is: You brought this on yourself, you loser. Beware of not living well and ending up with unsubstantial blood that forgot to have a good time. If this is meant to be metaphorical, then I don't get it, and I'm good at metaphor. Name me six people in North America who aren't plagued by self-doubt and aren't running in the race to find acceptance. The argument, then, as I understand it is: thinking = self-doubt = lymphoma. So, by Aristotelian logic: Thinking causes cancer.
I'm a bit obsessed with my own strain of cancer at the moment, but when I get a few spare minutes, I'll look into what others are doing to bring on their life-threatening diseases. I know there are books on this – a disease equivalent of your horoscope. (Your sign is cancer.) Tell us how you're screwing up your life, and we'll tell you how you're destroying your body. And the reverse: Tell us what disease you have and we'll tell you what's wrong with your life.
Despite my willingness to subject myself, evidence-free, to low-risk cancer remedies, such as pulverized kale and dandelion tea, I draw the line at books that demand I take the blame before I can move on to the cure. Blame is as useful as guilt, and as hard to shake. But I'm working on it.