I reached out to a friend who had recently battled breast cancer to ask her about her experience. As a neophyte inductee, I was concerned about the vainer aspects of it – losing my hair, going through early menopause – will it make me prematurely wrinkly and gray? Will I be hugging a toilet for the next four months? How long will it take my hair to grow back? I was a bit taken aback when her reply centered more on her beliefs on what caused her cancer in the first place – the stress of a bad relationship. My sister, who has recovered from brain cancer, believes the same thing. After having her brain tumor removed, she also excised her husband from her life – her cancer-causing agent – and now lives happily along a sunny, Florida beach, cancer free.
A book I picked up written by a knowledgeable Muggle – someone who knows a lot about cancer and the research surrounding it, but hasn’t actually experienced it himself – proposed that cancer is caused by one of four things: too much stress, too many toxins, a bad diet or not enough exercise. A woman I met in a cafe turned me on to a theory propounded by Dr. R.G. Hamer called the German New Medicine. He believes cancer can be brought on by a sudden traumatic event. His son was killed in an accident and shortly thereafter the doctor developed testicular cancer, which led to his new line of thinking.
I can honestly say I have no idea what “caused” my cancer. I’ve worked hard at developing good coping skills – journaling, meditating, deep breathing – to combat any stress in my life. My blood pressure when I’m not on the cancer ward is 110/70, which shows it must be working. Every year I barbarically “detox” for at least the month of January. I exercise regularly, running 5ks, half-marathons, triathlons, masters swim, biking, spin classes, walking – I’m exhausted just thinking about it all. Overall I eat a good diet, full of cancer-fighting foods, whole grains, no sugars, no processed food, nothing fried. And while I’ve been no stranger to traumatic events over the last three years – having lost my stepfather in a tragic car accident, my father to lung cancer and watched cancer change my sister – my rogue cancer cells started their celebration bash long before any of those tragedies occurred.
I have to admit, while I’ve been angry that I’ve done everything I could to prevent this disease, I haven’t spent a lot of time considering what “caused” it. After wasting years of my life trying to get to the root of every little thing that happened to me, I finally adopted the Chinese proverb: “If you understand why it is, it is what it is. If you don’t understand why it is, it is what it is.” But then I begin to wonder, if I don’t know what caused it, can I be sure to be cured from it? How do I know it won’t come back?
Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable says that despite our refusal to believe it, highly improbable things DO happen and have a huge impact on us. He says it’s a defect of the Judeo-Christian belief that if we live right, work hard, do the right things we’ll be rewarded with a perfect life. In truth, life is random and horrible things happen to perfectly good, deserving people. And in the aftermath what we learn is that we’re resilient, adaptable – but more importantly, that we were never really as safe as we thought we were. And because we know that, we are less vulnerable and more vigilant. And that makes us safer.
So I can live without knowing what caused my cancer. My safety now lies in knowing that yes, it can and has happened to me. My cancer cell count will go down to respectable limits, but the truth is I’d be a fool to think I am “cured.” What I am now is vigilant, and therefore less vulnerable. And maybe that makes me a little healthier.