Among the most common comments that I hear from people who have been diagnosed with cancer is, “Why me?” One of the most common comments I heard in the hospital as I was being diagnosed with cancer was, “Why you?” Well, the docs didn’t actually ask, “Why you?” What they really asked was, “Do you smoke?”
According to the American Cancer Society, smokers are three times more likely to get bladder cancer than people who don’t smoke. The official position is that no one really knows what causes bladder cancer, only that smoking is strongly linked to it. What they’re all thinking, though, is that smoking causes bladder cancer.
For whatever reason, I’m the odd one out on this “Why me?” stuff. I’ve never asked that. I’ve never even thought it because somewhere, deep down I feel like I deserve it. Since I was 17 years old, I’ve been a closet smoker. One of those on-and-off-sometimes-occasionally-a-half-a-pack-at-a-sitting types. I have rarely smoked with other people, just a small circle of friends and family, and since the late 80s I’ve always smoked outside. I used to have a “smoking outfit” on my closet floor (see, I’m a closet smoker) that I’d slip into after my daughter had gone to bed so I could go out onto the deck to smoke. At the time I lived in Alaska, so the outfit included a coat, pants, top, gloves and hat reserved only for smoking.
It’s probably fair to say that I was a “shame smoker.” Even though I am an atheist, I was raised by a Southern Baptist minister. (Perhaps it’s true that I am an atheist because I was raised by a Southern Baptist minister. But that’s another blog.) So, even though I’m an atheist, I’ve retained the fear and trembling from my upbringing and I’ve been waiting a long time for the universe to slap me down. I know good and well why me.
In addition, it doesn’t take long to figure out that you’re neither the sickest person in the room, nor are you particularly worthy of the most sympathy. It only takes seeing the image of a bald little kid to put the whole thing in perspective. Or hearing that someone you know has been told to call hospice because all treatment options are exhausted.
Still, I completely understand the question. Why me? My grandfather probably smoked in a year many more cigarettes than I’ve smoked in my entire life. He died of a disease unrelated to smoking. Worse still are the people who’ve been diagnosed with bladder cancer and lung cancer and who have never smoked at all.
I actually think we need to ask, “Why do people get cancer?” a lot more than we do. We spend immense amounts of money on curing cancer, and, believe me, I’m a fan of the concept of curing cancer. Ultimately, though, I think we need to figure out why so many people get these diseases who have no high risk behaviors. It’s not as sexy as finding a cure, but preventing cancer is more important than curing it in my book.