Friday, January 2, 2015

Random Cancer: Forgive Yourself

I've seen different versions of this article in a bunch of places in the last couple of days: it reports on research that tried to determine how often cancer came as a result of environmental or lifestyle factors, how often it came from inherited genetics, and how often it came from pure chance.

What they found was, most of the time, it was just chance: a random genetic mutation that results in cancer.

To figure this out, researchers looked at tissue samples from 31 types of cancer over a lifetime, and by comparing them to the overall risk of developing those types of cancer, they were able to determine that about 2/3 of cancers develop because of "bad luck." In other words, for most cancers (22 of the 31), it's not a matter of environment or genetics -- it just happens.

The cancers that originate in cells that divide rapidly (like skin cells) tend to be more prone to "bad luck." Others that divide more slowly (like lung cells) are less likely to develop cancer randomly, and more likely to develop because of a lifestyle factor (like smoking).

It makes sense: the more times something gets copied, the more chances there are for problems. It's like the "telephone" game -- whisper something in someone's ear (something like "Lympho Bob is the best blog on the internet), and as it gets repeated from person to person, there are more chances that it will get repeated wrong, somewhere along the line. Now imagine that you took that same phrase and made it into a lovely needlepoint and hung it in your kitchen -- it will get covered in grease and baby food and jelly stains, until you can't read what it says anymore. Either way (random changes over time, or changes because of environmental factors), what you end up with is not what you started with.

Another article reporting on this research shows the 31 different cancers. You will notice that Follicular Lymphoma is not one of them. in fact, there are no blood cancers at all on the list.

I think that's pretty significant for us.

To be honest, I really don't know if B cells are fast-growing or slow-growing. I would guess they are considered fast-growing, since if you donate blood, they get replaced in a few weeks. And if that's the case, then we have one of those cancers that is a result of "bad luck."

This also makes sense: if you've ever tried to find out why we got Follicular Lymphoma, you were probably disappointed. I haven't bothered to look in a while, but from what I remember, I might have gotten it because I worked on a farm, or in a paint factory. I don't remember, and I'm not going to bother trying.

And you shouldn't, either.

I've said this before: I don't think it's worth it to worry about how we got our cancer. It's a natural question, especially for people who are pretty newly diagnosed. But I think it's pretty easy to beat yourself up over it, too. What did I do wrong? Should I have done something differently? Should I have avoided something? Should I have NOT avoided something else?

Suppose working on a farm really does give you Follicular Lymphoma. You get diagnosed in your 60's, after working on a farm for 50 years. What's the point of knowing that? So you can feel guilty for having worked hard and earning money and taking care of your family for 50 years?

What's the point of that?

As cancer patients, we have enough negative emotions -- fear, uncertainty, sadness, anger. We don't need to add guilt to that list.

And this research just backs me up. If we got cancer because of bad luck, then there's no sense in worrying over how we got it or what we could have done differently. Sometimes stuff just happens.

So if you've been feeling guilty about getting cancer, because of how you think you might have gotten it, or how it has affected your life since then, please: forgive yourself. Make this the year that you stop worrying about what has already happened, and start making it the time when you control the things that you can control. Hug your loved ones a little tighter, enjoying yourself a little more, and look forward to the good things -- the ones that happen randomly, but more importantly, the ones that you make happen yourself.

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