There’s a theme swirling around my social media and real-life worlds this week, with Twitter followers and in-person clients alike describing their pre-cancer lifestyles in the following fashion:
- “But I ate organic!”
- “But I did ALL the right things.”
- “But I really took care of myself.”
- “F*ck genetics! This is how I ate (and organic) for a decade or more before cancer diagnosis.”
With a diagnosis of breast (or any) cancer, some of the first and long-lingering questions are these:
WHY (did I get this). HOW (did I get this). WHEN (did I get this). WHAT (did I do to get this).
I know this with absolute certainty because I asked WHY, over and over and over and over again. Why did I, promoter of wellness, prevention and healthy living, walker-of-the-talk and champion of all things nutritious and giddily healthy, actually have the words “It is cancer.” directed at me?
What I now know, is that perhaps a better question to ask may have been “why not?”
New cancer rates are increasing; about half of all men and one-third of all women will develop cancer in their lifetimes.* The county I’ve lived in for the past 26 years has the 7th highest rate of breast cancer in the state of Illinois.
Why wouldn’t I get breast cancer?
Well, I wouldn’t of course, because I did “all the right stuff.”
Yet here’s the thing; I never thought that. I know there are no guarantees, that I was merely stacking the “healthy deck” in my favor, certainly not securing any absolutes from the universe. I mean, what arrogant thinking that would have been on my part, that simply because I’m an enthusiastic and of my own volition embracer of a healthy lifestyle (and an honest-to-God real dietitian for heaven’s sake) I would be kept safely out of cancer’s clutches.
As if there were even enough kale, lentils and running paths on the planet.
Breast cancer doesn’t care about my RD credentials any more than it cares about the substantial collection of running medals hanging in my closet.
But that thinking did come from some people. “WTF? Cathy Leman has breast cancer? I give up.” And I completely get it.
The desire for personal control is innate in each and every one of us, and hearing that someone who takes care of themselves is dealt a staggering health blow? That doesn’t at all help us feel in control.
In my experience, when people learn that someone living la vida healthy has a serious illness, they head to one of two camps.
Camp One: Person living healthy lifestyle is diagnosed with cancer. Person living “less than healthy” lifestyle determines that if healthy person gets cancer “the rest of us are doomed”, ergo, exercise and eating healthy doesn’t work, abandons all effort or thought of making slightest shift toward a healthier lifestyle; commences binge-watching t.v. accompanied for eternity by a steady diet of all things junky, processed, and artificial.
Because IT JUST. DOESN’T. MATTER.
Camp Two: Person living healthy lifestyle is diagnosed with cancer. Person living “less than healthy” lifestyle determines that if healthy person gets cancer, yet comes through with minimal (or manageable) collateral damage, there must be something to that healthy lifestyle, commits to making small changes toward improving their own health; goes out for a walk, buys a bushel of broccoli and learns five different ways to prepare it, then actually eats it. Every day.
Because IT CERTAINLY. CAN’T. HURT.
There’s no question that taking care of yourself builds physical resilience and positions you to get through ANY illness with increased odds of a better outcome. I see it in the research, in anecdotal reports from other survivors, and I experienced it firsthand myself.
But here’s the bottom line. Nothing, not one particular food or any specific type or amount of exercise has been 100% proven to prevent breast cancer, and with the exception of BRCA gene mutations and/or an otherwise strong genetic history, no one really knows WHY we get the cancer we get. Wait, that’s not entirely true. I clearly recall my nurse navigator saying, “Smokers are the only people who don’t ask “Why did I get this?”
No one does EVERYTHING perfectly for their whole, entire life. Cancer takes years to develop; can you honestly say that you’ve done EVERYTHING perfectly (assuming we even know what the exact “everything” we need to do should be) in the years leading up to right now?
And consider this. Perhaps you currently “cook and eat organic” at home, and aim to keep your toxin exposure to a bare minimum, but you’re also out there in the big old world living your life:
- eating at restaurants, airports and other locations where you honestly don’t know what’s actually in the food
- walking and running through neighborhoods where lawns are drenched in free-floating toxic chemicals in pursuit of suburban perfection
- visiting glorious cities where you take in both the sights and the vehicle exhaust
- staying in hotels (or other homes) where the cleaning products used are most certainly not toxin-free
Breast cancer is a complex web of biological, behavioral, social and physical conditions, all merging at exactly the right time to create the perfect storm.
Here’s an excellent visual representation of 31 different variables that are potential contributors to breast cancer. Be sure to click on the various boxes in each area (Domain, Strength, Data Quality) to view the connections (strong AND weak) outlined clearly: A Model of Breast Cancer Causes
See how complex and random it is?! But don’t get discouraged.
I encourage you to take the best care of yourself that you can, because there’s no question that it absolutely makes a difference, but also, to be kind, gentle and forgiving with yourself. You can’t “cause” breast cancer, any more than you can avoid the sheer randomness of it.
* Cancer Rates: http://theoncologist.alphamedpress.org/content/12/1/20.short
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