Are We Stigmatizing Cancer Patients?

Since my breast cancer diagnosis, I’ve kept a close eye on both the popular and scientific literature regarding potential causes of breast cancer. There’s a lot of new information coming out now, but the core recommendations for lowering one’s risk of breast cancer remain the same.

In fact, current research is reinforcing them: keep a lower weight, eat more fruits and veggies, exercise, don’t smoke, don’t drink. While I’m oversimplifying, that’s the gist of the message that’s being disseminated. Some articles go a step further and make bold statements. One in particular stressed that cancer was preventable through lifestyle changes. Anand et al., 2008 claims: “cancer prevention requires smoking cessation, increased ingestion of fruits and vegetables, moderate use of alcohol, caloric restriction, exercise, avoidance of direct exposure to sunlight, minimal meat consumption, use of whole grains, use of vaccinations, and regular check-ups. …[W]e provide evidence that cancer is a preventable disease that requires major lifestyle changes.”

Of course, when I read these recommendations, all I absorb is, “You irresponsible ass, you’re not doing enough to protect yourself!” The fact is, I was doing all that and more, and I still got breast cancer. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you’re probably sick of hearing me say it. I shouldn’t have gotten breast cancer according to all the guidelines out there.

So here’s the issue that I have with all these helpful suggestions. They keep repeating lifestyle changes that should be implemented to lower your cancer risk. Let’s face it, it doesn’t matter WHAT disease you’re trying to avoid, you should maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, not smoke and so forth.

We can’t automatically assume that if someone has cancer, they must have been engaging in unhealthy behaviors.

The stigma of cancer comes in when we start making assumptions about WHY someone gets the disease. Given all the purported connections with lifestyle for breast cancer, that assumption may be that the woman (or man) brought it upon themselves. The more that we stress lifestyle changes, the stronger the connection becomes in the mind of society: if you get cancer, you were clearly doing something wrong and it’s all your own fault.

I will be the first to stress the importance of doing everything you can to improve your health. But we have to accept that given our current lack of understanding regarding the exact agents that bring on cancers, we cannot put the “blame” squarely on the shoulders of the patient.

Consider lung cancer. We’ve known for a long time now that there’s a powerful connection between lung cancer and smoking. But what of the non-smokers who get this cancer? According to the American Cancer Society, “As many as 20% of people who die from lung cancer in the United States every year have never smoked or used any other form of tobacco.” Isn’t it tempting, however, to immediately jump to the conclusion that if someone has lung cancer, they likely deserved it, since so many lung cancer deaths are attributable to smoking?

While smoking does account for 80% of lung cancer deaths, that’s only a general statistic. Statistics work well for populations, but they can be strikingly inaccurate when it comes to pinpointing causes for an individual. For example, one of the youngest known cases of lung cancer was in an 8-year-old girl in Jiangsu Province in China due to some of the worst air pollution on the planet, not to a pack-a-day habit. So we need to be careful about the assumptions that we make.

Back to breast cancer, if you were to construct a picture of what a “typical” breast cancer patient would look like based on the recommendations for what to avoid, you’d come up with an overweight, sedentary, smoker/drinker with a bad diet. But if you start picking this apart, you find that these predictions don’t hold up. For example, the connection between breast cancer and weight is complicated. In fact, many of the women I know with breast cancer had healthy habits, and most did not look like the picture that we constructed at the top of this paragraph. In contrast, there are numerous women with unhealthy habits who remain cancer-free.

Statistics work well for populations but are lousy predictors of what actually happens to a given individual.

This message that we send about how to lower your risk of cancer raises the possibility of stigmatizing the patient. It suggests that we have control over our outcome, and this is simply not the case. Currently, we don’t know enough about what causes cancer and what to do to truly avoid it. And if we do what we can to lower our risk of it, that only means statistically lower our risk. That doesn’t guarantee that we won’t get the disease.

My painful personal lesson was to not assume that I could avoid cancer by following health guidelines to a “T”. At the same time, I had to shake the notion that I had done something wrong to willfully bring cancer upon myself. Ultimately, I had to let go of both control and responsibility because neither one had a role in this disease for me.

The best we can do is live as healthfully as possible, accept the uncertainty that comes with a situation this complex, and not judge those who have been unfortunate enough to fall prey to the disease.

Author: franticshanti

Why so serious?

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