Cancer Shaming

I’m sure lots of you have heard of the internet sensations of dog shaming and cat shaming, and an eloquently written piece on XOjane recently took on fat shaming.  In this post, the author contends with the belief that all overweight people choose obesity through their diet and activity choices.  Specifically, she points out times where “well meaning advice” was, in essence, blaming her for her weight.  Perhaps she should take the butter out of her grocery cart and replace it with a lower fat alternative; “good for her” for working out at the gym.

I know no one would ever, upon hearing I had cancer, tell me that it was my fault. Yet, a piece in the Guardian made very clear the cancer shaming that I’ve been picking up on lately.  It seems every week something new is “associated” with an “increased risk” of breast cancer. Those quotes are there on purpose– so many of these associations end up being little more than a flashy headline.

I love how we all “know” things that help fight cancer.  Like antioxidants and green tea, right?  I had a friend, who, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, received a big bag of blueberries every week from a well meaning woman at church. I know it was well intended, and thankfully, my friend received them with the appropriate grace. (Who wouldn’t want a bag of forty dollars’ worth of blueberries ever week? Wait! I bet they were organic.  At least $60!)

Sure, it’s good to be healthy. There are plenty of reasons to maintain a healthy weight, regardless of the impact on breast cancer risk.  But do I really think that if my friend had eaten that many blueberries her whole life, she wouldn’t have gotten cancer? Um, no.  And to the friend who made herself and her family eat broccoli every week even though they all hated it because she heard it would prevent the breast cancer that took her mother’s life? I love broccoli.  Eat it all the time.  Got cancer anyway. And if those blueberries could have cured my friend’s cancer, I’m kind of betting that the doctors would be shoving them down our throats. (Or big pharma would be busy synthesizing the critical compounds and pumping them in our veins.)

I know the media just reports the studies that get published and will draw viewers.  But it seems irresponsible to suggest that a woman is at fault for her own breast cancer diagnosis. The thing is, with breast cancer, no one has been able to pinpoint a real cause.  Of course, there is a small subset of women who, like Angelina Jolie, carry a mutated form of the BRCA gene, and the cause of their cancer is clear.  That leaves the other 95% of us wondering if we did something wrong.

Because I’m doing an awareness event with a wellness clinic, I’ve been digging in to the wellness aspect lately.  Maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol intake (the lower the better), and not smoking all reduce a woman’s risk of breast cancer.  But if you start out with a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer and manage to cut your risk in half, that’s still a one in sixteen chance.  Your chance is smaller, but there’s still a chance.  Mammograms have decreased a woman’s chance of dying from breast cancer by catching a tumor earlier, but they haven’t eliminated the chance of dying.  In fact, 20-30% of breast tumors, including some of those “caught early” by mammograms, progress to advanced disease.  Nearly 40,000 women will die of breast cancer this year.

It’s not a woman’s fault that she got breast cancer, and it certainly isn’t her fault that she’s dying from it.  I’m sure not many people suggest that so boldly.  Yet many women are so desperately searching for their own “why,” and feel blamed when they hear the latest study or are forced to answer well meaning questions from others wondering the same thing.

As I think about the wellness presentation that I’ll make in a couple of weeks, I find myself walking a fine line.  We do need to take action in our own lives.  Eat healthy, drink less, move more, and get screened. I think that is a very important message.  Sadly, there are no guarantees. It seems so unfair.  Even if you do everything right, you can still end up with breast cancer. Found early, treated aggressively, a woman can still die of breast cancer. Shaming others and blaming ourselves (intentionally or otherwise) helps no one.

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