Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Day 17 of the WEGO Health Activist Writer's Month Challenge and I'm writing about a lesson I learned the hard way: 

It's not my fault I got cancer.

That's right; it's not my fault. It's not yours either. Let me explain.

When people first hear you have the Big C, a self-protective cloak chokes their brains and hearts and tongues, making them think and feel (and sometimes say) some very stupid things to assure themselves that this cancer thing is just a blip on the screen. Such as: "They caught it early, right? You'll be fine!" or "They got it all, so stop worrying!" or "Well, if you're going to get cancer, breast cancer is the best kind to get!" to "Then you're cured, right?" 

Part of the problem is that folks have an innate need to blame cancer on something. If we can attribute getting cancer to something someone did or didn't do, then cancer feels less out of control, less random, less likely to come our way. If we know why something happened, we can make sense of it. But it's really hard to make sense out of senseless things.

And that's exactly what cancer is: senseless. There is no reason for it. And that's a hard concept to wrap your head around. Just ask any cancer patient (or their friends and family). When cancer comes a callin', the fear affects everyone — infiltrating every relationship we have and pushing us all into some form of denial. We can't help it; if we don't detach from the fear, we will go mad. 

As a cancer patient, I'm way ahead of you in the games of denial, shame and blame. I hitched a ride on that highway the minute I got "the call." But I re-learned an important lesson that is grounded in what I have always believed: that every woman, every man, every child is born into this world with a pot and a recipe. The pot is porous, the recipe inherited. Many of the ingredients are not generic, they're genetic.

Are you female? That's a big risk factor for breast cancer. Put it in the pot.

Did you arrive with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation? Maybe you have a faulty gene that's yet to be discovered. Whatever you've got, put it in the pot.

Now drop in the age at which you started menstruating — the earlier you got your period, the more circulating hormones your body has been exposed to. That increases your breast cancer risk. Put that in the pot.

Next, pour in your environmental factors. This includes the air you breath, the water you drink, the food you eat (and the containers it is stored in) — not just now, or for the past 10 years — but for all time. Consider everything your mother ate, drank and inhaled while pregnant with you; her mother before her, and her mother before her. Put it all in the pot.

OK, ready to toss in the lifestyle choices you made as an adult (not realizing their long-term implications, of course)? For women, this includes whether you had children — and if you did, did you breast feed them? What about the birth control pills you took to keep from having kids in the first place? Risk factor. For the menopausal among us, did you take hormone replacement therapy? That ups your risk too. Put it in the pot. 

Ah, exercise. Do you get enough of it? Did you work out consistently during your busy lifetime? (Gaining the Freshman 15 after 40 is not recommended, and I am guilty as charged.) Maintaining a healthy weight is tres important; so is not smoking, not drinking (ummm, about those college years ...) and choosing food not genetically modified or laced with pesticides or hormones or antibiotics. What about sleep? Did you get enough of that precious commodity? And don't forget your vitamins: Did you/do you take the whole recommended rainbow? Put 'um in the pot.

Let's not forget life's psychological impact — difficult relationships, depression, financial woes, loved ones dying or falling ill, unemployment, anxiety, loneliness, tyrannical bosses (just to name a few). Put it in the pot. 

It's hard to keep calm and carry on; you need a mindfulness practice to level the stress field a bit. Are yoga and meditation in your recipe? What about whatever higher power you personally believe in (or not)? How does that influence the course of your life? Put it in the pot, turn up the heat, and put a lid on it. 

Your cosmic soup is now complete. 

Is it any wonder — after all that you put in your pot — that you got cancer? Sneaky, stinkin' cancer? Seems pretty clear to me that it's all your fault, right? Your hereditary recipe worked overtime to lower your resistance, causing your body to fight that much harder to fend off diseases — like cancer. 

But wait a minute. Aren't we all just swimming on a sea of unknowns, floating in little lifeboats, hoping the right conditions exist for us to get to shore unscathed? We paddle the way others have taught us to paddle. We carry a compass to stay on course. We keep our boat well maintained and stocked with essentials. We become expert swimmers in case we're thrown overboard. Yet still we cannot control the power of the ocean. 

Aren't you forgetting that none of us make it to shore? We are all pre-programmed to die. (Hello!) No one comes with an extended warranty. It's all just a matter of how long we get to ride the wave. For some, its a surfer's paradise; for most, its more like navigating a tsunami. 

So no, after all that, I do not believe that it's my fault that I got cancer. And I don't believe it is your fault that you got cancer either.

If "curing" cancer were as simple as living clean and stress-free and reducing the 'bad stuff' as much as possible — well, we would have a cure by now. The answer to cancer lies in finding a way to stop normal cells from going haywire and replicating in the first place. It's so much more complicated than eating organic and running a marathon. 

In gambler's terms, cancer is the lousy luck of the draw. A total crap shoot. Not within your control. The quicker you let go of your guilt, the faster you can focus on what's really important. And only you know what that is.


  1. No guilt trip allowed on this one. Nice post.

  2. Great post, Renn and an important reminder. I deal with this all time. I fit perfectly into many of your examples, so yeah, it must be my fault. Even though I understand it's not, I still struggle everyday, worrying about food choices, exercise.... blah, whatever it is. I guess we just need to learn to let it go and accept what is. Hard, though. xoxo

  3. Renn,
    Fabulous post! You're so right about so many things. We as human beings do like to blame something or someone when things go wrong. It's funny, even though I am brca2+, ("handy" thing to blame my cancer on...) I still sometimes blame myself. I mean I have three siblings and I'm the one who got cancer, so it must be my fault, right??

  4. Renn,
    I LOVE the way you write! This is just one more example of your "awesomeness" and I say, "Throw that into the pot, too." The good stuff goes in, too. And you got some pretty good stuff in your soup mix.

    "Aren't you forgetting that none of us make it to shore?" I think that may be the phrase of the month. It is for me! Going right into my book of "quotables" ..


  5. right on!
    that's the part "new-age" thinking that just pisses me off....
    its exactly what you wrote:
    some people like to think they can avoid the "sh*t" that happens to "other-people" so they try to create a following of frightened sheep, and profess the power of their mind....
    they got it all backwards....
    sh*t happens and its the way each person who gets the sh*t deals with their "sh*t"...
    all i know is that i am in awe of how you are dealing with your "shit"

  6. @Stacey: I struggle every day with making the right choices too. It isn't easy. I don't always do it. But the pressure we put on ourselves to "do the right thing" can be mind-numbing. I feel another post coming on. (I'd better go exercise before the tendrils of my computer suck me back into the room.)

    @Nancy: I can imagine that if I were BRCA+ that the guilt and the blame would be a far stronger lure. But to all the BRCA+'s out there: You did *not* create your genes! They have been passed down from generation to generation. Not a damn thing you can do about your genes — your jeans, on the other hand, are another matter! (Those are the jeans I have my guilt about!) ;-)

    @AnneMarie: Thanks, doll! You're right, of course: The good stuff goes in there too. That I will save for another post! PS I'm thrilled to make it into your book of quotables! xoxo

    @M: I have had this blog in my head and in my notes for some time; it took the prompt of the day to eek it out of me. (And, I might add, it took nearly a 24-hour period in which to write it.) I love how you summed it all up: "sh*t happens and its the way each person who gets the sh*t deals with their "sh*t". True and quotable! ;-) Thank you.

  7. Renn, thank you for writing this absolutely perfect rebuttal to those who blame or are blamed for causing their cancer - and it's not just about cancer. As I was reading your words, I felt an aha light bulb moment go off in my head - I blame myself for a lot of things that I have no actual control over, and this was just the reminder i needed that sometimes s**t just happens.

  8. Renn, this was great! I'm amazed at the people I run into who think it won't happen to them and basically (without those exact words) let me know it's my fault I got cancer! What an ignorant thing to indicate to a person diagnosed with cancer, but I guess it's there way of making themselves believe they will never get it because they do all the right things. I love the way you wordered everything and am wondering if I could feature your post on my own blog for my readers....featuring you as my "guest writer" for the day. I can't say it any better than you....or as well....and would love to put it on my own blog (giving you the credit, of course). Please let me know...thanks! Cindy

  9. Marie: As my friend M said above, "sh*t happens and its the way each person who gets the sh*t deals with their "sh*t" — that's it in a nutshell! And that is where the power to overcome resides.

    Cindy, I would be honored to be featured as a guest writer. Which blog is yours? You did not leave a link. Tks!

  10. Renn, I love your final paragraph concluding that it's a total crap shoot. We do need to let go of that guilt, but it's so hard, isn't it? You've emboldened me to focus more on what's important in life and follow that dream.

    I think this was one of the harder prompts to write about this month, because it is so personal. And yet it was therapeutic to get hard lessons off our "chests." Great writing! xx

  11. A great clear-eyed post, Renn. It reminds me of a post I wrote a few years ago, called "Cancer Happens."

    People never like to admit that they're powerless over certain things. But it's particularly galling when they scramble to come up with explanations for the inexplicable -- like cancer -- and end up blaming the person for whom the inexplicable has happened.

    We can't always choose what happens in our lives, as we here well know. We can choose how to respond though, and not to waste our precious sanity trying to assign blame.

    Love you. xoxo, Kathi

  12. This post works for people who haven't gotten the Big C too. I faced the same emotions when my son was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect...genetics? environment? where did I go wrong in my pregnancy? was it something I ate? Something I didn't? Was it because I forgot to take prenatals vitamins on occasion? Was it because I had that drink before I knew I was pregnant? But you're right. There is no making sense of the senseless. Sometimes (alot of times) stuff happens without any good reason. People live so much in denial (in the statistics) that they believe foolishly it will never happen to them. From car accidents to cancer. No one lives forever (no one makes it to shore, as you said). Death will come for all of us one way or another and although it's a hard and scary lesson (coming to grips with your mortality) it's worth it because it makes the moments worthy of your attention.

  13. @Jan: I agree, it was a hard prompt to write! Guilt is a tough emotion. It really only serves us in knowing right from wrong. All other uses are wasted energy! Easy to say, harder to follow!

    @Kathi: Thank you for sharing your beautiful riff on this very topic — I commented on your post on your site. But want to encourage readers to read your post (link is above) b/c it is so very truthful and full of awesomeness! xoxo

    @Carrie — I speak of cancer but you're right, the lesson we learn can be applied across the board, for all of life's many challenges. There is no making sense of the senseless!. There just isn't. As you said, "From car accidents to cancer..." Yup. hat sums it up! Forces us to face the final door. Not fun but as you say, worth it! Thank you!

  14. love this post! It's all true, especially the blame game. I think I may have Sarcoma b/c my Dad was on the Navy ships when they did nuclear bomb testing. I was conceived right when he got back. What chance did I have to escape any possible gene mutation?
    I am what I am, right now that's a Sarcoma warrior!

  15. A brilliant post! Thank you for writing it. I would love to share it with our community at You can contact me at

  16. That is spot on!
    However, try having cervical cancer; you will be blamed and told you got it cos you are a slut and got HPV >..<

    I had a rare form of endo-cervical adenocarcinoma and didn't even have HPV, but let me tell you, as soon as "non-cancer people" find out you had a gynaecological cancer, look out with all the "it's your fault" insinuations! Gah! As if cancer wasn't bad enough :O.

  17. Renn,

    I love your writing, and this posting is excellent. You speak such truth, and I felt reassurance reading your post. I do think people always want a sense of control, as if life and/or health is a guarantee, but we know differently. Thank you for posting this. By the way, I wrote on a similar topic in my posting Breast Cancer and the Blame Game.

  18. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this post, Renn!!
    I need to print it out and stick it on the mirror, or maybe it would be better if it were wrapped around every bus, every billboard, and framed on posters in every waiting room.

  19. @Yvonee: Wouldn't that be awesome!

    @Beth: Thanks, that is high praise. I try to be truthful and I'm glad it comes though in my posts!

    @Tara: I cannot even imagine what you go through. You deserve your own list of No-Fault responses!

    @Angela: Please email me at regarding your site.

    @SJN: It's NOT your fault! I will scream it from the rooftops for you! ;-)

  20. A fantastic post, Renn, and one which (like so many others) I can see myself quoting in the future!! It's funny - I just wrote about the appeal of metaphors for me since diagnosis, and your post contains fabulous the pot/recipe image and that of the little boats on the sea. Great stuff - thanks for getting your thoughts down!

  21. Liz, saw your bog on metaphors and agree. I just love a good metaphor! ;-) Thanks for stopping by!

  22. I can't begin to tell you how much I needed this post, this morning. I was diagnosed with breast cancer 3 years ago, and again this week. I carried a load of guilt about things I could have/should have done differently last time and felt that guilt creeping up again this time. This post spoke to my's not my fault, there is no fault, there is no blame, there is no shame.
    Thank you for reminding me of that.

  23. @Anonymous: I'm so sorry to hear about your recurrence. I am glad you stopped by today and saw this post and felt a little relief. You said it best: It's not your fault, there is no fault, there is no blame, there is no shame. Those are beautiful and true words. Believe them.

    {{{hugs}}} to you on the road ahead. You can do it!

  24. Fabulous post! I might just print it out to shove under the noses of people who say such marvellously "helpful" things! Generally they are smug losers with a heavy dollop of fear in their own pot, who, by blaming me, are actually just reassuring themselves that these things only happen to "other people". You have just written it so well. Thank you. Yvonne

  25. Hi Renn - Thanks for the reminder, I needed to re-read this! It's maddening to try and second guess how I should have lived my life - it's all a crap shoot as you say. Great post.


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