Why did I get cancer? Why did YOU get cancer? Was it a coin toss (tails, you lose)" flawed genes" too many hotdogs and too much beer? Was it that year I spent smoking as a 17-year-old, dying to be part of the cool crowd? Or maybe it was true what they said about microwave ovens when they first came out-don’t stand too close, they’ll make you sterile. Or maybe give you breast cancer.
No one knows for sure why we got cancer. A strong family history of the disease is certainly a contributing factor. But beyond that-well, as Mary Ann Gilligan, an associate professor of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin recently said (as quoted in the Kansas City Star), “Unraveling why women get breast cancer is complex.” And if doctors and researchers find it complex, then you and I surely don’t have the easy answer.
I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that many of us believe we know why we got cancer. Why? Because I’ve heard friends tell me guilt-ridden secrets about the supposed origin of their disease. "It’s God’s punishment for the way I’ve treated my mother," whispers one. Another believes her life was just a little too perfect, and she needed something negative to keep her from getting "too big for my britches." A third is convinced it’s from the radon gas in the cellar of her childhood home; "We used to sleep on the cellar floor in the summer, when it was so hot upstairs we couldn’t breathe," she says. "Imagine how much radon I breathed"
Me? I think it was stress. Six months before diagnosis, I was on an endless treadmill of deadlines at work, unpaid bills, a teenage son playing the "No one does their homework" game with me, and a newly purchased home with lots of issues, both structural and cosmetic (did I mention the unpaid bills?). I worked and worried, worried and worked, never took time for myself, and started each day by very grudgingly trundling off to the gym at 4:30 a.m. to "stay healthy."
What a laugh! Back then, I had no clue how connected my mind and body really are, and how a tense, exhausted, overwhelmed mind can give rise to many forms of illness-not just mental, not just emotional, but physical. In the midst of this cycle of stress, I remember thinking, "The only way I can get out of this mess is to get sick and land in the hospital. THAT would stop things for awhile." Six months later, I was in the hospital, having a mastectomy. And I remembered that silly solution to my problems, and thought "Thataway, girl. You got EXACTLY what you asked for."
Do I really think cancer was my wish come true? No, I don’t. I don’t believe we can “wish" cancer on ourselves any more than we can wish away a strep infection. But we can work ourselves into stressful situations that are the equivalent of tilling the soil before planting a garden; we can make ourselves ripe and ready for cancer to take hold, if it comes. There’s scientific evidence that stress weakens your immune system, which makes you more prone to a host of diseases, including cancer. So putting yourself in a stressful situation, day after day, month after month” well, it’s not "asking" for cancer, but it’s certainly not a healthy lifestyle that’ll help prevent cancer, either.
I don’t want to go through cancer again. But the unpaid bills continue to pile up; the deadlines at work are unrelenting. My solution? A personal mantra: I can’t control anything in my life but my own attitude. So come what may each day, I shed the stress. Now I don’t wish for an illness to put the brakes on a life going downhill; I apply those brakes myself, in a proactive, positive way, via Reiki and meditation. Ultimately, I can’t prevent cancer from coming back; but neither do I have to invite it in. I’m healthier and more relaxed than I was 5 years ago; and these days, cancer is going to have to fight much, much harder to get a foothold.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.