Why I Got Cancer

It’s World Cancer Day, so you know, all party party for wig owners everywhere. With entire months of awarenesses do we really need another Day? Me, I’m not one to Stand Up, walk miles, utter expletives, and generally bully the crap out of Cancer as if attitude alone prevents mitosis. But what’s unique about this World Cancer Day, is its aim to debunk common cancer myths. Anyone with an entire drawer of hats has endured the well intentioned, often wackadoodle theories about Cancer from friends and strangers, alike. And if you’re Asian-family immersed or adjacent, your catalogue of “myths” will be too long for a mere 24 hours of debunking. In the early days after my diagnosis, in a much appreciated lighten-the-mood moment, my sister-in-law shared the top theories offered by A-Ma and A-Gong about my rogue cells. Only the Whole-Foodie-Yogi-Pseudoscientists and those Everything-For-A-Reason people can match myths with my in-laws. And not a single one of these angered or irritated me. Nope, they’re sort of hilarious after a justified, really? really? really? reaction. So in honor World Cancer Day, The Top Five Reasons Britt Got Cancer.

·      Unwashed meat.

Pretty certain A-Ma believes my opposition to meat-washing was my biggest risk factor for malignancy. Plenty of people in the previous generation believe our meats need a good scrubbing. Julia Child was forever rinsing the entire bird as if it had spent the day at the water park sharing towels with warty kids. I’ve always clung to the more scientific notion that heat kills microbes; and any Ames-test agents lurking mid-meat won’t surrender to your salmonella-spreading practices at the kitchen sink. I confess that, on occasion, I have faked the chicken-rinsing to avoid this argument.

·      Noodle water.

The first time A-Ma floated this theory, Cancer was something that happened to other people. One funny evening at the stove, she insisted that uncooked noodles could not be added directly to the soup. Why? Because Noodle Water Causes Cancer. Everyone knows this. It’s in the Chinese newspaper (conventional wisdom), and the Pastor said so (ergo, fact). It didn’t matter that Bernie and I have framed diplomas from accredited medical schools on the walls. Noodle Water Causes Cancer. The Chinese newspaper had also published a recipe for egg casserole that you cook in the dishwasher… so, you know, the obvious source for current medical theories.

A few years later, as I stood at the stove under one inch of hair, boiling soup for a full table of relatives, A-Ma re-issued the noodle cancer theory. This time Bernie’s rebuttal was delivered in Taiwanese (approximate translation: really, mom? really? really?) so I wasn’t privy to any new data offered by the Chinese newspaper. With dutiful daughter-in-law deference, I boiled the noodles separately. I’m only too happy to adopt noodle soupy superstitions to thwart metastases, especially if evil pasta broth caused my primary tumor.

·      Energy stuck.

Here’s one myth I support more than mock. If you’ve been an EMB follower since its scary beginning, you know that my father-in-law is magical. He’s a healer, a Xi Gong master, Ruler of Energy, faithful Christian, and just a super nice guy. When I was terrified, cold, shaking, and depleted of my own energy, he and A-Ma gave me some of theirs. But just as the assisted flow of Xi feels warm and lovely, when energy is blocked, pain, illness, even Cancer follows. My in-laws never launched a reason for my energy circuit deficiencies. It probably has something to do with dirty meat. Or noodle water.

·      Everything I eat.

Hey, girl. You’re so cute, all skinny in your yoga pants with your ponytailed hair and uncancered boobs. Thanks for suggesting I ate my way to Breast Cancerland, that my innards are polluted with processed foodstuffs, that my disease was potentially preventable with a weedier diet, and that the cure lives in the denial of everything delicious. I’m thrilled to hear your aunt’s dry cleaner was “cured” by her chiropractor/yoga practice/positive attitude. We’re going to be besties… I just know it!

·      God.

Certainly the Big Guy helped me through the unholy yuck of it all. Though I’m too skeptical (unfaithful) to float the myth that prayer can cure cancer, I won’t deny that it helped me through it. But the “only given what you can handle” and “…for a reason” and the bizarrely unfeeling, “have the grace to succumb instead of interfering with God’s plan” implies a deficiency of strength, courage, faith, or character. It also sounds dismissive and a bit unkind to your bald friend trying to make sense of the “why me?” of it all. These sentiments are also theologically silly. God is the biggest cheerleader for Life. God doesn’t “give” anyone Cancer. It’s not a test. It is neither punishment nor gift, neither spiritual nor personal. Although it feels like shitty luck, it’s really just science: two-hit hypotheses, environmental insults, genetic predispositions, and mutations.

But the kindnesses Cancer provokes, the Faith it re-kindles, the Strength it summons… that’s God. But He was already there, anyway. Cancer just makes you notice.

So happy Debunking Day, friends. Know that the cancered amongst you have probably considered weirder ideas than yours about why this happens to anyone. In place of your queries about oral contraceptives, radon exposure, and stress management skills, offer something that can actually help: love… and salted caramels. And just to be safe, wash your meats and separate your noodles. A-Ma is never wrong.

WCD 2014

20 responses

  1. I can’t tell you how much I loved this. Not that you have cancer…that would just be rude…but the perspectives and weapons of choice you use to combat it. Your story telling is lovely, your insight is beautiful, your humor is golden and your spirit is inspiring.

    “But the kindnesses Cancer provokes, the Faith it re-kindles, the Strength it summons… that’s God. But He was already there, anyway. Cancer just makes you notice.” …That gave me chills. Great post.

  2. I love this. My dad had MS and we heard “God won’t give you more than you can handle” — well, that’s not true. God didn’t give it and my mother COULDN’T handle it. Among my community college students — many of whom have survived long chains of nightmares — “Everything happens for a reason” might help them get through, but I regard it as 1) dishonest, 2) a post hoc fallacy, 3) dismissive. I like the little meme; Everything happens for a reason and that reason is usually physics. Anyway, I love this post. Anyone contending with a grim immensity hears the same strange things — though I will say that the preventative medicine I was given in China in the ’80’s by a traditional practitioner that was meant to prevent hepatitis seemed to have worked. I was one of two whites I knew (there were only 10 in my city) who did not get hep that spring. Clearly that happened for a reason…

  3. I did not know that it was World Cancer Day. I LOVE the bit about God – and about people’s daft paraphrasing of little bits of the bible. I don’t have cancer – though three close family members have had it in recent years. They’re doing great. But the last thing you need to hear when you’re suffering, regardless of what is causing the suffering, is that God did it. What kind of a screwed up God would do bad things? A God who says “I just want you to suffer a bit more to prove how much you love me”?! B*ll*cks. God is Love – not a sociopath.
    I’m struggling with PTSD and a neurological condition, but I’m also revelling in the knowledge that God is with me all along. That knowledge is beautiful.

  4. I’m sure you’ve already heard this one, but just in case you haven’t I’ll add to your already full list of cancer cures- WHISKEY. I wish it was prosecco for your sake. But a treats a treat and I say imbibe! Love you!

    • Whiskey is good… or bad? You know I fully endorse drinking, although the literature suggests my Prosecco consumption might be a tad excessive. Apparently if one glass of wine is good, four isn’t better.

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