Who Deserves Cancer?

There’s something that’s been bothering me that I’ve been pretending doesn’t bother me and every time it comes up, I get a little more pissed than the last time it came up.  It would seem that if I just wrote about it here that this might relieve some of the tension or perhaps help me to think out loud what the issue really is and how to address it.

For clarity’s sake, I’m going to call the big C by its real name of CANCER instead of my preferable ‘candy.’

Don't SpeakWhen People Say Certain Things

Hook had or has cancer. We don’t know if he still has it. We don’t know if the surgeons were able to remove all of the tumor from his pancreas. We won’t know anything until a CAT scan is done, and we’re not sure when that scan will be approved – in a month maybe.   We wait in limbo, again, but we’ve gotten good at limbo.  Although we don’t welcome the world of the in-between, we accept it.

From the time Hook was diagnosed eight months ago, people have said out loud to me or to someone else, “Well, he smoked.”  Or, they’ve referenced a story about how a loved one of theirs had cancer, too, and they’ll add, “But they didn’t smoke,” or “My <relative> died of <some type of> cancer and they never smoked a day in their life.”  Sometimes if they don’t know me or my husband, they’ll ask, “Did he smoke?”

Implied Meaning

When someone says these things or I hear them secondhand or I read them in a message, a barrage of emotions and thoughts start pumping through my mind and my body. It’s difficult for me not to see that person in a whole new light, a dingy hue of ugly.  Do they mean to be tactless, without compassion, gross? I don’t know. I hope not.

What I do know is that we all have certain things that we find intolerable. For a good majority of the population, smoking and smokers fit into this category. Until cancer hit, Hook’s smoking never bothered me. I knew he was a heavy smoker when I married him.  It was an irrelevant point for me.

But now, trying to force Hook into quitting this deeply ingrained habit of his was an undertaking almost as big as the cancer itself. There have been stormy arguments full of screaming and yelling, cajoling until the wee hours of the morning, quitting ultimatums given over and over and over again.  At one point, I threatened to inject chemo into his head if he didn’t stop smoking.  Hook found out the hard way that his addiction to smoking was bigger than he was.  So big he wasn’t able to admit it was ever an addiction, an addiction not a whole lot different than any other drug.

I’m not blaming smoking. Cigarettes didn’t make my husband smoke them. Hook chose to smoke. It was a very conscious choice. He has stopped by the way. Hook has been smoke free for almost 90 days now after having smoked in large quantities for about 30 years.  It’s okay to clap. I do every day.

Regardless whether a person smoked or didn’t smoke, no one deserves cancer. Is that what you believe?  Do you believe that Hook deserved to have cancer?  Or worse, that’s what he gets for smoking? That’s what he gets because he knew smoking causes cancer.  That’s what he gets and he deserves to die a wretched death for choosing to smoke or he deserves to survive a damaged life.  Is that what you believe?

Every time you say something like this, that’s what you’re suggesting even if you don’t realize that that is exactly what you just said.

Do You Drive a Car?

If you drive and you get into a car accident and mangle your body, is that what you deserve?  Driving causes accidents (we have the data) and by driving as much as you do, you could be in accident and every time you CHOOSE to get on the road to drive, you are purposely putting yourself in harm’s way.  And don’t say you have to drive because nobody has to drive. You’re not addicted to it are you?  It’s not like you feel you’re going over the edge if you don’t drive do you?

You have other choices yet you choose to drive. And before you say that driving isn’t a disgusting habit that harms the environment and which people find offensive, then you haven’t talked to a bicyclist lately.  It’s not the best example but it will suffice.

Yes, I know it’s hard for you to filter your thoughts and not to wonder, But what did he think would happen?  I get that you might think that and I thank you, those of you who didn’t say that out loud, I thank you for sparing my feelings to the obvious.

A normal person, a good person, a decent human being catches themselves. They hold back before that cruel, heartless thought moves from their brain to their tongue and to my ear.  Because if we’re going to be judged on our faults, then:

  • Those who drive deserve to die in an accident.
  • Those who consume processed foods of any kind deserve to die of clogged arteries or a heart attack or heart disease or <pick something>.
  • Those who drink milk or eat eggs or consume dairy products of any kind deserve to die of a digestive tract infection.
  • Those who color their hair deserve to die of leukemia.
  • Those who eat salt deserve to die from complications brought on by a stroke.
  • Those who never exercise regardless of weight deserve to die of varicose veins.
  • Those who drink more than 1 soda a day deserve to die of complete and utter stupidity.

I made up the varicose vein one but stand fast by the soda thing.

Can We All Agree On One Thing?

I don’t want to be upset about this anymore, and I don’t want people to say these things anymore.  If these cruel thoughts enter your mind (and we are all guilty of having thoughts we wish we never had), resist the urge to speak them out loud.  Please.  Especially if you’re talking to someone who’s loved one has cancer.

Resist the urge to blame a man’s weakness for not giving up this one vice. I’ll even agree that smoking is a disgusting vice.  There, I said it, okay, are you happy and will you shut up now?  The smokers know it’s disgusting (not really).  You don’t have to tell them that.   Actually, every time you do, you insure their dedication to continue smoking because smoking is linked to some inner rebellious I-never-grew-up feeling of doing-whatever-the-hell-I-want-no-matter-the-consequences.  Don’t believe me?  Read Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point.

We all have our vices. Every single one of us. You are far from perfect. You are not without flaws or weaknesses. If you think you are, I’ll gladly spend the day with you and happily point out all of your flaws.  Trust me, it won’t take me but a minute to see them.

My husband did not and does not deserve cancer.  No one deserves cancer, not smokers or milk drinkers or processed food eaters.  And drivers don’t deserve to die a fiery death just because they choose to drive a big, clunk of steel 80 miles an hour down a highway or 18 miles an hour down a neighborhood street.

Yes, smoking is the leading cause of cancer. Yes, if you smoke, you increase astronomically your chances of getting cancer.  We all agree on that.  Can we also all agree that NO ONE deserves cancer?

Thank you.

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21 thoughts on “Who Deserves Cancer?

  1. Checking in to see how you and Hook are doing. Just my two-cents’ worth on the smoking comment. I don’t think people realize the implications of the remark. I think it is a very gut-level sort of (primitive, even) response that comes from terror and a need to believe there is something we can do to ward off the same fate. If I don’t smoke, if I don’t eat crappy food, I won’t get X disease. I’m not saying people shouldn’t learn to be more tactful and self-aware, but I think the comment comes from a very deep, relatively unconscious belief or hope that we are more in control than we are.

    Give my regards to Al, and keep listening to ABBA. I read a fascinating article in a science magazine about a study of archetypal sound patterns that register “happiness” in peoples’ brains. “Dancing Queen” by ABBA was a nearly perfect examplar of the pattern.

  2. Rich — thanks for your note. I’m not going to tell Hook that his life can’t be systematized and orderly because that will really push him over the edge. 😉 Thank you for reminding me about a wonderful virtue of Allan’s: Not only does he try to minimize risks but he tries to do so for others as well. He’s true Eagle Scout.

  3. Your side…..well said, well explained. My side……thanks for the FYI, I have been guilty…..no excuses. So this is what I am to learn today!!!

  4. No one deserves cancer and please forgive those of us insensitive enough to imply otherwise. We are all flawed and scared and try to make sense of something that makes no sense at all. In my experience it is the purest of heart who have been stricken by cancer, as if it seeks to cover the best light with its darkness. Thank God for all the torch bearers, the doctors, the nurses, and especially the supportive friends and family.

  5. Rosie, I wish that I could see a live version of that monoogue. I bet it was such a relief to get off of your chest. Cheering you on! Our culture in the USA has made smoking the worst evil ever. Worse than the unthinkable evils that happen on a daily basis.

    And although there are “risk factors” of health issues, sometimes shit just happens. And I wish that you, Hook, and all that love you didn’t have to deal with it. Hang in there. Love from Michigan.

  6. I love you!!! Agreed, no one deserves Cancer. Okay so I better stop berating and glaring at the pop drinkers. If David expires from pop consumption, I might to re-read this…Love you both!

  7. Bravo, Rosemary. Well said and well taken. I have been through this with a father who died of cancer and smoked, and a mother who died of pancreatic cancer and did not smoke. I do not believe we all understand the myriad reasons behind all cancers. But, to anyone who faces the disease and those who rally behind him, I say, Bravo. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the cause, but the love you have for that person. Then, nothing matters except the care of that person afflicted; cause be damned.

  8. I’m sorry you have to go through this. Maybe because of this experience you will be an amazing helpmeet for someone not as strong as you!
    Hopefully those not so nice comments will lessen very soon, or better yet stop.

  9. Well said Rosemary!!!! No one deserves cancer!!!!! Thank you for sharing so openly with us about what you are going through!!! I love your posts!!!

  10. Yes, you are absolutely right. We try to put distance between ourselves and the problems of others and ourselves by injecting nonsense like “Well, she didn’t wear a seatbelt.” That is a statement that everyone needs to ask of themselves but shouldn’t be asked to others especially by thoughtful friends. When I was in the Peace Corps, I was mugged a few times. The first time it happened I reported the incident to the administration in the Peace Corps. News went out and I heard of questions like, “What was he thinking to go out at night?!” Well, I worked at night and lived in a crime-ridden area, like everyone else. I understood risks. I still do. Every time I walk into the field and put my hands down I worry about being bitten on the arm by a rattler. I wear snake boots but should I completely wrap myself in armor? Is being in nature worth the risk to life and limb? I think so and yet I don’t even have an addictive drug to keep me confused about it. In his book, ‘Thinking fast and small’, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist Kahneman points out that the way our minds work among the many facets of our lives does not allow us to be able to keep everything in our life systematized and orderly. First, there are too many risk factors and second, we only have so much discipline and energy. Hook is a very thoughtful and disciplined fellow who lives by the rules he has set up for his life. He minimizes his own risks in the better parts of his life and to me more importantly, he tries to minimize them for others.

  11. Further thoughts: I’ve been thinking about this problem of blaming the victim for some years now. Part of it, I think, stems from fear. If an individual knows someone else who has cancer, or financial problems, or misbehaving teenagers, etc., and if that individual can imagine an explanation, specious though it may be, for why that particular misfortune befell the other, then one can imagine oneself safe from that calamity. For example, one could think to oneself (or tactlessly say out loud), “Patrick Swayze ate smoked ham hocks and I don’t; therefore I will not get that kind of cancer,” or, “That person lost her job because she didn’t suck up to the boss enough, and but the boss loves me,” or “I take my kids to church every Sunday, and those other people only go occasionally; therefore, my kids will never get in trouble with the law like theirs did.” Hidden in that statement that appears to place blame is a strong dose of magical thinking, a talisman against the same misfortune. The truth is that people who don’t eat smoked ham hocks do come down with cancer, good employees do get fired arbitrarily, and kids raised in church do get into trouble, and sometimes there is no one to blame. But the person touched by misfortune is often scapegoated, isolated, and blamed by those who are in denial about their own vulnerability.

  12. Thank you for this, Rosemary. Folks really are unconscious of what they say to make themselves feel better. So it is very helpful to hold up a mirror. It may even wake some of us up, but for you, I am sure this experience has been quite the eye-opener.

    My sense is that people are trying to feel “safe” by finding a cause, a way to distance themselves from something they fear (ahem, the possibility of death), a way of “solving” the problem through blame. Pretty ugly, really, but pretty common. In many ways, it’s the same thing is what we’re doing as a culture after Sandy Hook.

    Andrew Solomon is so articulate on the Sandy Hook thing: http://www.salon.com/2012/12/19/andrew_solomon_theres_no_meaning_to_be_found_in_sandy_hook/

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