I’m a cancer survivor, and people
always ask about my diet, exercise
and smoking history, as if I’m to
blame for my illness. How can I
respond to them?
MACHELLE MOELLER: Living a healthy
lifestyle—including maintaining a healthy
weight, exercising and not smoking—can
reduce a person’s risk of getting cancer. But
that’s not the same as suggesting that people
who develop cancer of one kind or another
are to blame for their disease or that all
cancers are preventable.
In thinking about how best to respond
to questions that seem to cast blame for
your cancer, it can be helpful to consider
whether that was really the questioner’s
intent. It is natural for people to want
to find explanations for why bad things
happen. It is possible the people asking
those questions are thinking less about
your experience and more about their
own risk for cancer or that of a loved
one. It’s tough for many people to accept
that much about cancer is mysterious and
cancer can happen to anyone.
When you are ready to respond, consider reminding people that cancer is
a complex disease. While there can be
many contributing factors, doctors rarely
can look at a cancer and point to a specific cause. For example, while smoking
can be a primary risk factor in many
instances of lung cancer, we also know
that people who have never smoked can
develop lung cancer.
It is probably best to keep your answers
short and sweet. Let people know how
those questions make you feel and why,
especially if they are coming from people
you really care about.
It is extremely common for people
who’ve had a diagnosis of cancer to
wonder if they are somehow to blame.
People often ask themselves questions
such as “Why did this happen to me?” or
“What did I do wrong?” That can make
these potentially “blaming” types of ques-
tions from others even harder to take.
Remember that no one deserves cancer.
Keep in mind also that we can’t change the
past. The best thing you can do as a cancer
survivor is to empower yourself with infor-
mation about how to live a healthy life going
forward. If you have questions, talk to your
doctor about steps you can take for living
a fuller life as a cancer survivor without
feeling demoralized or defeated by your
diagnosis or its treatment.
COPING WI TH BLAME // Slate explores why cancer patients get
blamed for their disease. slate.com/articles/health_and_science/
for_their_disease_no_matter_what_the.html // Cancer Research
UK explains how talking can help people cope with blame and anger
after a cancer diagnosis. cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/
coping/emotionally/cancer-and-your-emotions/guilt-blame-anger // The American Lung Association discusses the stigma
associated with lung cancer and its impact on patients. lung.org/
I keep hearing about new ways
to treat cancer, but my doctor
says none of them are right for
me. How can I be sure the new
treatments won’t help?
LIDIA SCHAPIRA: We live in an incredible time for cancer medicine. New cancer
treatments frequently appear in the news,
along with stories of patients with exceptional responses. It can be daunting for
any patient attempting to understand
exactly how all these new developments
might apply in her particular case, or
why they don’t.
One thing to keep in mind is that many
patients with a diagnosis of cancer will
have a standard-therapy option that is
capable of keeping the disease under
control. Those treatments have a long
track record of success, and there may be
no need for you to avail yourself of the
newest, most cutting-edge therapies. You
might feel as though you’re getting the
“same old treatment,” but what you are
getting may also be the very best treat-
ment option for you and your cancer.
Another thing to consider is that the
new treatment you’ve just read about in
the news might carry a hefty price tag. It
might also come with physically grueling
side effects and relatively modest potential
benefits. It may well be that your doctor
isn’t recommending that treatment for you
because she doesn’t think it’s worth it in
your case or at this stage in your treatment.
That said, your question raises impor-
tant considerations about the nature of
your relationship with your doctor. The
doctor-patient relationship should be a
respectful and collaborative partnership.
If your doctor ultimately can’t answer
your questions to your satisfaction, consid-
der seeking a second opinion. It is possible
another doctor will have something to add
that may translate into a tangible benefit
for you. At the very least, a second opinion
might bring you reassurance that you’re
on the right path.
EVALUATING NE W TREATMEN TS // Cancer Research Catalyst
includes blog posts highlighting drugs recently approved for cancer
treatment. blog.aacr.org/tag/fda // Smart Patients is an online
community where patients can learn about new treatment options
from each other. smartpatients.com // Cancer.Net offers advice
on evaluating information about cancer treatments on the internet.