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The day I got cancer

There was a day – a single specific day – on which I got cancer. I don’t know what day it was, except it was probably about four or five years ago because that’s how long it takes breast cancer to grow from a single mutated cell into a discoverable lump.

Four or five years ago I was in the best physical shape of my entire adult life. I was running, lifting weights, doing yoga and aerobics, skating, skiing, eating well, and not smoking. I was lean and healthy. I looked good and I felt good.

I love the irony of having gotten cancer during my two-year healthy-lifestyle phase, because I am by nature a self-indulgent and slothful layabout who would rather eat 2,000 Smarties in the interests of mathematics than eat a single vitamin supplement.

I read that anger is common with cancer. It’s not unusual for people to ask “Why me?” But I haven’t felt any anger and I’m not really surprised it’s me. I’m as good a candidate as anybody, I suppose. Except that none of my blood relatives have ever had any type of cancer, so we’ve always felt protected. A little smug, even. Now I feel kind of apologetic to my relatives, especially my sisters and nieces, for being the weak link that let cancer get its foot in our collective door.

I guess I’m a little surprised that it’s breast cancer, even though one in eight women can expect to get breast cancer at some point in their life now. I’m not sure why it surprises me, but it does. And I’m surprised that it’s my right breast. I never consciously thought about this before, but at some level I thought if I ever got cancer, it would be on my left side. Left lung. Left ovary. Left kidney. Or cancer of something that there was only one of, like my cervix or my brain. I know that doesn’t make sense, but there you go.

I wonder if the day I got cancer was an otherwise good day, or if it was a difficult, stressful day. I wonder what I was doing the exact moment that cell mutated.

I wonder why I got cancer. Was it something I did or didn’t do? Was it something I knew I should or shouldn’t do? Like that time I used the flea pesticide on the dog indoors even though the instructions said to use it outdoors only? (I probably wouldn’t even remember this, except that all the ants in the ant farm died, which gave me pause.) Was it microwaving food in a plastic container? Not taking Vitamin D supplements? Eating a Boston Cream donut? Not eating walnuts?

Or was it something totally off the wall that we don’t yet know causes cancer, but maybe someday we will. Like doing push-ups or touching cats while wearing yellow socks.

Or was it just bad luck? Just a totally random sequence of events at the genetic level, which was totally beyond my control?

I guess I’ll never know. But if I could do it all over again, I’d take my Vitamin D supplements. And I wouldn’t use that pesticide indoors.

14 comments to The day I got cancer

  • Manon

    A few years ago, my younger sister (who is now 43) decided to use pesticide to kill poison ivy at our family’s cottage because her son was highly allergic. It was the heavy-duty kind that asked you to wear gloves and a mask. She wore the gloves and didn’t deem it necessary to wear a mask. She sprayed that pesticide for a whole week-end and repeated the whole thing the following summer for another week-end. She got rid of the poison ivy.
    In February 2008, she was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Today, she is an invalid, she can’t move, she can’t talk and she has to be fed liquids only. Her life expectancy is a matter of months, a year at the very most. While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of an illness such as ALS, it has been known that heavy use of pesticides is responsible for a large amount of cases. There is not a day that she regrets not wearing a mask or even using the product at all. We don’t always know what is the cause of an illness, but there are ways to prevent some. In your case, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to determine what it could be.
    What am I trying to say here? You don’t know what you did to get cancer, but at least you don’t have to regret every single day for the rest of your life the one stupid and reckless thing you actually did and that cost you your health and half of your life expectancy.

  • Cancer is unregulated cell reproduction. I’ve heard (but I can’t find the source) that we have thousands of cells go nuts and start over-reproducing daily, but our bodies shut them down before they get to be a problem.

    So think of the day where one little cell when nuts and started to divide. It didn’t get picked up with its nasty sisters that day. The next day went by, and it kept doing its thing, while all around it, the other protocancers were being wiped out. Each day it went on.

    Sure, one day you might have used flea pesticide. It survived that day. But it also survived the days when you didn’t. You might have had a yummy, yummy boston cream donut and it survived that day as well. But it also survived those days when you went to yoga, when you went for a bike ride, and when you saw a good movie.

    I guess I’m trying to say that cancer isn’t something you can pin on a single action. If you’re constantly putting yourself in harms way by smoking, contracting nasty viruses, or working in industrial settings, that’s one thing. But if you’re living a varied healthy life, then it’s just bad luck.

  • Have been expecting breast cancer for years, given it’s likely I’ve one or both of the BCRA genes. On the maternal side, mother, grandmother, and two of three aunts all had it. Grandmother died of it; as far as I know, mother and aunts are still alive and kicking.

    Here I am about to turn 59 and breast cancer still it hasn’t caught up with me. It really is a roulette wheel, methinks.

  • Jo

    In Gilda Radner’s autobiography (I think it’s called “It’s Always Something”) she talks about her battle with cancer and has a paragraph almost like the one you wrote wondering which one of the things she did in her life led to the disease. I always remembered that part because she was wondering if the fact that for years and years she ate a tunafish sandwich every day for lunch had anything to do with the cancer. When I read that I was going on my fifth year of eating a peanut butter and honey sandwich every day for lunch and I remember getting scared that someday I would be wondering if my lunch had brought disaster upon myself. I think I started eating different stuff after that.

    So I guess everyone looks back and wonders about what they did or didn’t do. I think you’re handling everything remarkably well, all things considered.

  • Oh, Zoom, you can drive yourself nuts wondering what exactly caused the cancer. It might be nothing you did, but something in your environment, something your mother did, something “the universe” gifted you with. In fact, it might not even be about you! You just never know.

    Anyway, I am going to take this opportunity to alert your readers about a Cancer Prevention Study being conducted by the American Cancer Society’s Department of Epidemiology and Surveillance Research, because wouldn’t it be great to not only find a cure but also a way to *prevent* cancer? Go to the following website to find out more.

  • We just found out today that my Mom has cancer. Not a lot of time left. Devastating.
    Fight on, Zoom. Fight hard.

  • Mary

    Breathe, fight likehell, don’t torture yourself trying to figure out why you. it sucks, but medicine is amazing now. My grandson was born 4/13 with an extremely rare and serious birth defect. It was/is a total shock we didn’t see coming. He will have many big surgeries, but he’ll get through. There are amazing support groups, and so many people who have fought this battle and will be there to help you. To listen to you. I am. I had cancer in 2002 and am pretty fine, all things considered. My sister had breast cancer in 1991, went through all that goes with it, and she is doing great.

  • Carmen

    Zoom, I really, really enjoy your style of writing. Your blog post today has me thinking….!

  • Julia

    What a thoughtful and thought provoking blog yours is. I cannot begin to imagine all the thoughts that must go bump in the night and in the day for you. With much respect…

  • Tom Sawyer

    The way I see it: We can only reduce the risks but not eliminate them. It takes just 1 carcinogenic particle (and there are plenty of those pesky buggers floating around) to find its way into our bodies and start growing the wrong way. Whether we breathe smoke from a cigarette, a campfire, or particulate from diesel exhaust as we walk a city street, it just takes 1 particle. Of course the more we’re exposed the more likely we’re to be affected. But it takes just 1 particle 1 time. And we can get that anywhere: outside the city, or within. There’s no haven. The factories fume & petroleum pollutes far & wide. And we likely harbour less than perfect genes from our makers.

    So, what to do? My vote is on never touching a cat while wearing yellow socks.

  • Manon, what a tragic story, and yes, maybe that would be even worse – knowing exactly what I had done to cause it. Especially if it had been a one-off, as in your sister’s case, rather than an ongoing lifestyle choice.

    Erigami, that makes sense. But even if it’s a random sequence of events, I’d kind of like to know what my role was in it.

    Ocean, it sounds like you’re staying one step ahead of it. Either you’re doing something right, or you’re blessed by good luck. Either way, it’s good.

    Thanks Jo. I think what you’re saying is in some ways on the same track as what Erigami said, with respect to variety. A nutritionist once told me that you never need to worry about the occasional indulgences, just about the things you do every day. Maybe I’ll read Gilda’s book – she did sound like an interesting woman.

    Abby, I know, I will never know. I just can’t help but wonder. I also wonder what i can do to get rid of it. The universe is full of suggestions. Thanks for the link!

    Gayle, I’m very sorry to hear that. :(

    Mary, good luck with your little grandson. It sounds like he comes from a family of survivors, so that should give him an edge.

    Carmen, thank you!

    Hi Julia. I like that twist of words: thoughts that go bump in the night. (Last night was one of those nights.)

    Tom, do you think it’s just one particle? Or do a whole bunch of other conditions at the cellular level have to be met in order for that particular cell to be vulnerable to that particular particle? (But just to be on the safe side, I think you should throw out all your yellow socks.)

  • I wonder all the time why I got cancer, for so many of the reasons you outline in this post. I do it a lot less than I used to. In the early days, it was like chewing on a canker sore – you know it only makes things worse but it’s really hard to resist.
    I’ve decided that my cancer was probably caused by a whole host of factors (and I am suspicious about the building in which I worked) and that a single change would not have made a difference. I still find myself playing the “what if” game…
    Going to go and take my vitamin D now. I think it’s been months.

  • I’ve stumbled across your site a couple of times for knitting stuff. My doctor called me with the results of my breast biopsy last night. I was in denial that they’d found cancerous cells (invasive and non-invasive). I googled the surgeon’s name and ended up back on your site.
    Your posts have made me feel a bit better as I enter into this strange new world.

  • Gozzygirl, I’m so sorry you’re going through this.

    Someone on this blog told me something that made me feel much better as I navigated those treacherous waters, and that was that the early days are the most difficult part of the entire journey. She was absolutely right. Going through all the tests and waiting for the results, so they can figure out the nature of your cancer, and your treatment plan – that’s the hardest, scariest part. Once all the information is in, and you know what you’re dealing with, it’s much less terrifying.

    I’m wishing you all the very best, and if there’s anything I can do for you, please ask. I mean that. My email address is zoomery at gmail dot com.