It was one of the first questions that kept repeating itself in my head, once the initial cancer diagnosis had sunk in. I have an innate sense of fair play and getting cancer at 38 seemed like life was dealing me a pretty duff hand. I looked around… at work, while I was out at toddler classes, just wandering around the shops…thinking to myself why? Out of all these young women getting on with living their lives, why does it have to be me with months of treatment to trudge through and a potential life sentence forever hanging over my head?
But I suppose I should have really asked, "why not me?". According to Breast Cancer Care five thousand women under 45 will be diagnosed with breast cancer every year. And breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women under 40. And the more I looked around, the more women I found who were in the same position as me. Social media is much maligned but it can also be a wonderful thing. Through Facebook and Twitter I have been able to chat to many other young women who’ve gone through and are currently going through the same thing. Whilst knowing they’re suffering the same treatment and fears doesn’t make my path any easier and I desperately wish that none of them had to go through this either. But knowing they are there and recognising the same feelings in their tweets, posts and messages makes me feel like I am not alone.
Athletics and alcohol
Here’s the thing though…whilst I would never dream of blaming any of them for their cancer - in fact, quite the opposite, I feel only empathy and encouragement for them - I can’t seem to silence the voice in my head that blames myself for mine. I have a very analytical brain, I read and research a lot and it doesn’t seem to want to accept the fact that I’m just unlucky. On the one hand, I’ve led a pretty healthy life through my 20’s and 30’s. I’ve run the London Marathon 3 times. I’ve taken part in numerous triathlons and the punishing daily swim, bike, run training that comes with them. On the whole I try to eat healthily much of the time, we love a Joe Wicks recipe in our house and have been known to get on the paleo diet when we’re on a health kick. But I also have a real sweet tooth and can eat badly when I want to. But food plays less on my mind than the drinking and smoking I’ve done in the past. I gave up smoking when I met my husband more than five years ago but I worry the damage was already done. And whilst loving running and fitness I’d just as often be found with a cocktail in hand, rewarding myself for the hard work.
The dreaded research study
Every doctor I ask – or more often Steve asks because he’s worried I’m beating myself up about it – says whilst there is evidence alcohol increases the risk of getting cancer, there are many other risk factors as well. I don’t think you’d find a doctor on this planet who would tell you getting cancer is your fault. Most say there’s no way of telling why it’s happened.
But then all those stories I’ve read on the Daily Mail ‘Sidebar of Shame’ (this blog lists them extensively) keep popping into my head to continue beating myself with. The kind of surveys and research that are intended to encourage people who don’t have cancer into a better way of living. They generally fall on deaf ears because most people, I think, are like I was; you believe you’re invincible and that cancer is something that happens to other people. So, I’d suggest that all those stories actually serve to do is make those of us with cancer feel worse. When the Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies told women to think about the risks of breast cancer every time they reach for a glass of wine – comments for which she has since apologised and said she could have ‘framed better’ – I’m sure her intention was to encourage those without cancer to make more healthy decisions. But if you already have breast cancer you approach those sorts of comments from a different frame of reference. I’ve already drunk that glass of wine and now I wonder if it was that extra glass that caused the cancer.
Lies, damn lies and statistics
You can find all sorts of statistics online about things that cause cancer. Perhaps a scientist can enlighten me but how do they KNOW? Yes, I accept research shows alcohol, smoking, processed meat, sun, obesity etc. can increase your risk of cancer. But how can medics definitively say someone’s cancer is caused by one particular risk factor? Especially when people may have been exposed to more than one AND others exposed to the same risks will live into old age cancer free. No one has ever questioned me in detail about my diet and lifestyle, so I wonder where all these figures actually come from?
One bad cell
But not fully understanding how they make these links doesn’t stop me searching through my life choices for somewhere to pin the blame. I am very aware this is a destructive attitude and I’m writing this all down to make sense of it in my mind and hopefully turn my negative internal monologue into the more positive, flag waving, cheerleading pep talk I would give to other people in my position. When I asked my surgeon “Why?” she told me, “It’s most likely just one bad cell”. Bad luck. Just one of those things. So often in the modern world the person we are hardest on is our self. So now I’ve got that out of my system I’m going to try very hard to stop trying to explain my cancer and just focus 100% of my energy on beating it.