Cancer is everywhere.
In the past month, just in my circle:
A friend’s partner was diagnosed with breast cancer.
A colleague’s young sister has stage 4 cancer.
A close friend’s wife is dying from metastatic cancer.
A beloved author and illustrator dies of metastatic breast cancer.
As someone diagnosed with cancer myself, I feel as if – oddly – nobody in our government has really rung the alarm bell about the cancer. It is a shrug on the health ministry’s agenda, regulated to a special agency for special treatment. But collateral from cancer litters the entire health system. In emergency departments, family doctors’ offices, rehab clinics and mental health professionals’ couches. Cancer is not just a cancer agency problem. People with cancer are everywhere.
The thing is, cancer isn’t even that special. It will eventually haunt one in two Canadians. It isn’t only a disease that we will all get if we grow old. Young people are being diagnosed with cancer. There is never an ideal age to get cancer.
Cancer is something nobody wants to talk about, including the government. You can empty a room by announcing a cancer diagnosis. Having cancer is an efficient way to painfully weed out unsupportive friends and family. Many people run for the hills when you have cancer. The thing is, cancer touches all of us. It is an awfully big elephant in the room.
The response to feeling uncomfortable about cancer is patient blaming. This happens with oncology professionals, government bureaucrats and researchers alike. ‘Friends’ wade in too, saying in a backhanded way: “Well maybe now you will adopt a healthier lifestyle.” That’s their measuring stick. Like my lifestyle wasn’t healthy and that’s why I got cancer. So what if it wasn’t? What if it was?
This tired old patient responsibility mantra is trotted out, without recognizing that sometimes shitty things happen to people. It is easier to blame us than look at the other reasons for cancer.
Our environments. Toxins. The food we all eat. The air we all breathe.
Alas, we don’t know how cancer actually works because our government’s epidemiology departments are mum on the reasons we get cancer. There’s a fancy shiny cancer research building across the street from the downtrodden patient cancer treatment building in my city. But nobody from there once asked me where I grew up or even about my ‘lifestyle’ when I showed up after my diagnosis. I didn’t even have an extensive medical history taken by anybody. I was merely put on a conveyer belt of treatment. I was sent home a few months later and told: Put this behind you. Get back to normal.
But I can’t put it behind me. I can’t get back to normal. People all around me are dying of cancer. Early stage cancer can come back with a vengeance with late stage cancer – metastatic, terminal, Stage IV. Some people skip early stage all together and are diagnosed with Stage IV. Collectively, we turn our heads away from these people. I live in daily fear that my breast cancer has come back, migrated to my bones or my brain. Every pain in my hips or ache in my head reminds me about the thing I’m supposed to forget.
But if I say: I grew up downwind from the oil and gas refineries and I got cancer at age 48, I’m scoffed at as being a quack. Or I had a close family member who worked at the refineries and has had two types of cancer, there are more shrugs and eye-rolling. Don’t you know that cancer is all your fault?
Or what of the people of Fort Chipewyan, downstream from the oilsands, who got cancer, lots of it, rare kinds of cancer? And while this report has quickly become discounted and buried by the news outlets, even having a slight increase in cancer rates means that people are suffering and dying. And is even having a normal cancer rate okay? How has this been accepted in our world? Is cancer just inevitable?
Eventually cancer catches up to everyone. We get cancer. A loved one is diagnosed cancer. My friends’ loved ones die of cancer. It should not be dismissed. Yes, it is sometimes treatable. But it is also causing a great amount of suffering in the meantime. And cancer can kill us, my friends. Even pink, fluffy breast cancer.
If cancer was like SARS or H1N1, there would be a public health emergency. But as long as we blame patients for their own cancer, and governments skirt responsibility for looking into the environmental reasons for cancer, cancer will just be a shrug. ‘Oh well, you should have eaten better and exercised more,’ they say. And simply blaming us is a dying shame.