I can complain, all right. In fact, I’m probably one of the most accomplished bitchers in the business. But amid all of the bitching I’ve done since I learned that I have breast cancer, the one thing I haven’t done is feel sorry for myself. I’ve been afraid, I’ve been pissed, I’ve been sad and introspective, but I haven’t been self-pitying. I’ve sucked it up.
Today, though, I hung the balloons, uncorked the champagne and had myself a pity party. It didn’t last long, but was well attended and a good time was had by me. It all started when I realized I couldn’t implement my pet project without help. It’s hard for me to ask for help. It’s caught up in feelings of insecurity, perfectionism, and a deep seated desire to succeed. And I can’t do it. And then I asked the question that inaugurates every pity party. One I have never entertained before.
Some weeks ago I overheard a conversation in the doctor’s office. Two women were talking about how perfect they were: they eat right, they exercise, they meditate, they have children, supportive husbands, yet they got breast cancer. “We do everything right,” the one said. “I just don’t understand how it happened.” One of them caught my eye and I raised my eyebrow. I looked at them with a sense of disbelief; like I was watching a water buffalo put on a bra.
And I sat across from them: overweight, sedentary, single and, yes, I have breast cancer! Here I am: everything you aren’t but the three of us have breast cancer. Ain’t that a bitch? The undercurrent of these comments–whether people are conscious of it or not–is that some don’t deserve to get sick. I chalked it up to complete and total ignorance. It was an episode of The Real Housewives of Breast Cancer. It’s the Upper East Side, all these rich broads are too skinny, too indulged, and they all think they’re perfect. Perfect or no, they were the poster children of ignorance. And that profound ignorance got stuck in my craw like a popcorn hull between tooth and gum.
And when I saw it again the nerve was too raw to contain my reaction. Two people having a conversation in social media said the same thing. “We need to know why women who do everything right get cancer.” Or something to that effect.
Oh, for fuck’s sake!
In the last four months I’ve read about any number of risk factors for cancer: genes, too much/too little red meat, fish, pollutants, nutrition, environmental factors, race, ethnicity, cell phones, estrogen, obesity, preservatives, hormones, additives . . . the list goes on and on. There is the ideal and then there’s the relative everyone has who is a chain smoking overweight drug using alcoholic who no one likes and yet has managed to outlive everyone in their generation. You can’t stomach the guy, but there he stands: surviving the odds and flipping you the bird.
These conversations are, frankly, offensive. That old guy who smokes and got lung cancer–he deserves it. That lady who’s obese has heart disease–well, it’s her fault. That woman over there is an accomplished athlete–she doesn’t deserve to get cancer. That buff guy over there was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer–how could that happen to him?
I can only imagine the defenses:
- “I didn’t mean that anyone deserves breast cancer. But there are people out there who just don’t take care of themselves and they can’t be surprised that they got sick.” Or maybe,
- “No one deserves to be ill. I just want to know why someone who has done everything right gets sick.” Or perhaps,
- “I’ve been healthy all of my life and I did all the right things, yet I have breast cancer and I want to know why.”
Blogger Ann Silberman, author of “But Doctor . . . I Hate Pink!,” recounts a similar–though more direct–game of Blaming the Victim. Another blogger asserted that Ms. Silberman has breast cancer because of her diet. She writes
This “blame the victim” is a protective mechanism we instinctively do to allow us to believe we are immune from random tragedy; that it can’t happen to us.
But, it can. The woman who wrote that blog post can get cancer, just as I did. The truth is, nobody knows why people get cancer. Sure, there is a genetic component for a very few. But for most of us, it’s just bad luck. It’s probably a complex combination of genetics, external environment, internal environment, diet, proteins in cells, hormones,and a million other body and DNA-specific things that in any given combination, can cause an error in cell division and thus, cancer.
There is just no answer. People don’t like not having answers, but if it was as easy as eating green, leafy, organic vegetables – there would be no cancer.
My little party didn’t last long. For me to entertain any thought as to why I got breast cancer was (and is) a wholly useless enterprise. It’s a little too late to ask that question now; you can’t turn back time. It is what it is. The only thing to do now is to move forward and manage the disease. All we have is the present.
Bad things happen to good people. Thing is, we’re all good people and none of us are at fault for having breast cancer.