It is what it is


I breastfed my three kids for six years (not each, sillies…but all together) and naively thought that made me immune to breast cancer. This is an arrogant way to think: to be so pious to assume others with cancer brought it on themselves and you are somehow above that because you ran marathons or breastfed your babies or didn’t eat sugar.

Cancer doesn’t work that way. That’s the problem with risk factors – they are only factors, not absolutes. And even if this is all my fault, does that mean I deserve any less treatment or compassion? Think about that for a moment. If you believe that, I might be able to sell you a membership to the Republican party.

So when I felt a lump last October, I didn’t become alarmed until the lump resulted in a mammogram and then an ultrasound and then a long biopsy at the end of January. And then, sure enough, a diagnosis of breast cancer followed a week later.

(Note for my friends going through the same process: 80% of biopsies come back benign. If 1 in 9 Canadian women get breast cancer, consider me your ‘1’ out of 9 women you know, including yourself. I’m taking that ‘1’ for the team).

Believe me, I’ve heaped enough blame on myself: I’m soft as opposed to firm and I do enjoy a regular glass of wine. Both are risk factors that I calculated in my darkest hours probably wiped out any advantage from all that childbearing and subsequent breastfeeding.

Then I moved to blaming the environment – hormones in my food (but wait, this meant I didn’t make healthy food choices – damn) or growing up in oil-loving Alberta, with refinery dust settling on me as I biked to elementary school. Since my dad has had two different types of cancer and he worked at the oil refineries, my muddled brain attached itself to this explanation.

(Don’t fear, Alberta friends, this is made up in my head – see this Cancer Report from the Government of Canada for actual facts).

Of course, this is all speculation, also known as the blame part of grief. I went through the same process when my son was born with Down syndrome (My eggs are old and wrinkly! It was the refineries!) to no avail.

As far as a philosophy, my dad, in remission from both leukemia and prostate cancer, says simply, It is what it is. This seems useful.

A friend, who has had a lot of shit happen in her life, says equally profoundly, Shit happens.

Even Science magazine chimes in, saying, “66 per cent of mutations that contribute to cancer are due to unavoidable DNA-replication mistakes.”

Now I have a son with three copies of his 21st chromosome and I’d never consider him a mistake. I have always felt he has a chromosomal difference, not a disorder, and that he is a part of the natural human fabric just like everybody else. Me with my cell-mutation – well, true, it will kill me if I don’t treat it, so that’s a problem. But these things happen.

But in order to inch towards acceptance, I’m going to conclude that shit happens and it is what it is so that I can shut off my monkey brain and sleep at night. In this pre-treatment time, I am attempting to be as kind to myself as possible in order to find a little peace in my heart. I have a sense that I’m going to need to draw upon this peace for some dark days ahead.

6 thoughts on “It is what it is

  1. Donna Thomson (@Thomsod) says:

    Oh man, Sue, you hit the nail on the head. ‘Shit happens and it is what it is’ should be the mantra of everyone who has experienced really rotten luck in the lottery of life. The best any of us can do is get through it. Very warm wishes – I pray and you are in my prayers. Can’t hurt! Good luck!

  2. Carolyn Thomas says:

    Sue, thanks so much for this wonderful post. You’re writing this about breast cancer, but you could just as well be writing about heart disease (with which I have a close and personal relationship these days). With any serious diagnosis, there’s that big question: WHY?!

    Why did this happen? Explain yourself! One of my blog readers wrote this about a conversation with her co-workers after her own heart attack:

    “They were talking about breast cancer awareness. I said it was a worthy cause, but did they know that heart disease is actually the #1 killer of women? And one woman replied: ‘Yeah, but you bring that on yourself. If you take care of yourself, you won’t have a heart problem!’”

    The blame is even louder for people who are diagnosed with lung cancer, yet the number of never-smokers in this category, as I understand it, hovers around 20% for women.

    Hence the abundance of blame whenever you land a cardiac diagnosis. I wrote more on this in “Heart Attack: Did You Bring This On Yourself?” Meanwhile, a mantra for us all: it is what it is…

  3. seastarbatita says:

    When my dad got lung cancer the first thing almost everyone asked was ‘did he smoke’. Like it was their business. Like somehow it it would explain why him and not them. Like somehow it would make them nod or not nod. It was an assault, that question. He was stage four and things didn’t go well. He ‘lost his battle’ as they say. Not me though. I say the medical system failed to save him. But not because he smoked or didn’t smoke. Shit happens. And it’s not your job to figure out why. It’s just your job to get on with it.

  4. msteele34 says:

    Your blog made me think of Shaunna and all the well-meaning people who tried to pin her MS on her so that its terrible shadow would not fall on them or otherwise infect them somehow. Well said, my friend. It is what it is. Shit happens. Or as the matriarch of the Toles family, Rose, used to say: the fair comes in August. “Why?” can be a dark, impossible, inconsolable question, but it seems to be the one we turn to when things are rough. We are quick to ask, “why me?”, much quicker than “why not me?” Maybe asking why, though, and facing the not knowing, is the beginning of regaining serenity. I hope at least some of your waiting for treatment time you are able forget you are waiting and laugh and love with Mike and Aaron and indulge in the rain or sunshine on your face (mostly rain I hear, but there has to be some sun.)

  5. Tara Hogue Harris says:

    So true — I think we look for a ‘reason’ for any misfortune that happens to others so we can pretend that won’t happen to us — but the reality is much more random. I know I spend a lot of time running worst-case scenarios in my head because if I think of them first, they’re a) less likely to happen (right??), and b) I’ll be readier if they do happen. Healthy, no??
    As always, I’m grateful to be privy to your insights as you work through this, Sue.

  6. Gayle says:

    Oh I too have played that blame game – both for my daughter age 3 then 7 with cancer – and also with my alcoholic ex husband ( as that too was my fault). ‘Let it go’,’ it is what it is’ ,’ shit happens to nice people’ , and my favorite ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger ‘ xo love ya sue- hang in there xo

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