Ask­ing ‘Why?’

Grocott's Mail - - OPINION AND ADVICE -

Oc­to­ber is Breast Can­cer Aware­ness Month. The Health De­part­ment says breast can­cer is one of the most com­mon can­cers among women in South Africa, cross­ing race and class. This month, Sur­vivor shares with Gro­cott’s Mail read­ers the life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of di­ag­no­sis, treat­ment and re­cov­ery. This is the first in her four-part story.

When I was di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer I started to think about why. ‘Why me?’ ‘Why can­cer?’ ‘Why my breast?’ I think it’s nat­u­ral to won­der why but it’s also po­ten­tially prob­lem­atic.

One an­swer to why I de­vel­oped breast can­cer is that I was in my 40s and hadn’t had a child. My on­col­o­gist found this in­for­ma­tion rel­e­vant enough to de­scribe me as ‘nul­li­parous’ (I had to look it up) in a re­fer­ral let­ter he wrote for me. Ap­par­ently breast cells only re­ally ‘ma­ture’ when they pro­duce milk for breast feed­ing and if they don’t go through that they re­main like im­ma­ture teenagers. Un­sta­ble and re­bel­lious and prone to an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iour. But I also know women who have breast fed three chil­dren and still de­vel­oped breast can­cer.

An­other an­swer could be that there is a his­tory of can­cer (though not breast can­cer) on one side of my fam­ily. But I’ve seen the num­bers for how of­ten breast can­cer can be linked to a faulty gene, and the num­ber is be­tween 5% and 15%.

Judith Reynolds

So at least 85% of women who get breast can­cer don’t have a fam­ily his­tory of the dis­ease.

I dis­cov­ered that be­ing over­weight was a risk fac­tor for breast can­cer so I thought for a while about how I had been rather plump for a few years be­fore I was di­ag­nosed. Then I read that weight is only a risk fac­tor for women who are post-menopausal (be­cause oe­stro­gen gets made in fat in post-menopausal women).

Al­co­hol is also a risk fac­tor for breast can­cer and I won­dered if my habit in re­cent years of drink­ing reg­u­larly, though never heav­ily, had led to the can­cer.

Or the meat I had eaten. Or the times I had been too lazy to do ex­er­cise. Though I know of tea-to­taller, marathon run­ning ve­g­ans who have had breast can­cer.

There are peo­ple who think that pe­ri­ods of stress, and how the im­mune sys­tem is weak­ened by chronic stress can be a risk fac­tor for all can­cers. Help­less­ness or an in­abil­ity to change a very stress­ful sit­u­a­tion has been as­so­ci­ated with can­cer risk.

Ask­ing ‘why’ is tricky. I feel that I have to walk a very care­ful line. I don’t want to lay blame on my­self be­cause I can’t go back and change the past. And feel­ing guilt or re­gret isn’t help­ful. But ac­cept­ing that life­style choices could have led (at least in part) to my di­ag­no­sis, helps to mo­ti­vate me to make bet­ter choices now. And I can’t nec­es­sar­ily re­move stress from my life. But I can learn ways of deal­ing with it.

NEXT WEEK: The ‘war’ on can­cer – I’m not that kind of war­rior.

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