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‘How Did I Get Cancer?’

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Heather Millar - Blogs
By Heather MillarAward-winning writerJanuary 15, 2016
From the WebMD Archives

I have this tale I tell myself: I probably got cancer because I went through in-vitro fertilization (IVF). IVF involves mega-doses of estrogen and estrogen-related hormones. My cancer was off-the-scales reactive to estrogen. Plus, I personally know at least four people who’ve had IVF and then got breast cancer. So it makes sense, right?

I often hear other cancer patients tell their own “theory of origin” stories:

“I have this rare mutation that is linked to breast cancer.”

“I had to have hormone therapy for another condition.”

“I think I may have gotten cancer because I really didn’t diet and exercise after I got out of school.”

“A lot of my relatives on my father’s side died of cancer.”

Are any of these stories true? Perhaps. But I think there’s a good chance that most of them aren’t (including my own).

Remember that the human brain is hard-wired to make connections. Across history, we are the species that has seen gods in the stars. We have given voices to animals. We have made up elaborate plots to explain why a mountain got to be where it is, or why a river flows into the ocean at a particular place.

We do this because we want to make sense of things. We want to understand. And perhaps even more important, we want control.

If you’re a cancer patient, life seems to veer completely, crazily, out of control. Telling yourself that you know why you got cancer may not solve all your problems, but it gives you a tiny feeling that you at least know how the mess got started.

I totally get it. I did it, too.

But I urge you to take your explanations with a grain of salt. Remember that most scientific studies are designed to approximate truth in percentages.

That means that, in general, we know quite a lot about what causes cancer. We know that a certain percentage of people who smoke will get cancer. We know that drinking alcohol may increase the percentage chance that your cancer may recur (though in some cases these data may be argued either way). We know that exposure to certain kinds of chemicals may raise your percentage risk of cancer.

But does all this knowledge explain what caused your cancer? No it doesn’t. We can just guess that if you have a certain gene mutation, you have a higher risk of cancer. We don’t know that that was what definitely caused your cancer. Scientists are working toward a day when we might be able to be that specific about individual cancer cases. But we are decades, maybe even centuries, from that exactitude.

So, tell yourself a cancer origin story if it makes you feel better. But don’t take your explanation too seriously. And don’t go crazy changing your lifestyle because of that origin story. By all means, eat lots of kale or get lots of exercise, or meditate to moderate your stress level. We know that those things are good for you. Whether those things will definitely beat back your cancer, or reduce a risk of your recurrence, we just don’t know yet. You might as well look for answers in the stars.

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About the Author
Heather Millar

Heather Millar is an award-winning freelance magazine writer and author with wide-ranging interests including health, science, the environment, geopolitics, technology, parenting, and Asian affairs. 

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