I am a “jack of all trades” osteopath. I practiced family medicine for over nine years and am currently on a leave of absence as I fight invasive breast cancer. Once I return to medicine, I will be moving into a more specialized role in integrative medicine and osteopathic manipulation. I have also worked in urgent care.
I have to get something off my chest (no pun intended — I’ve had a double mastectomy). In the midst of Pinktober, I am bombarded by victim-blaming articles and posters. They all imply that breast cancer is preventable by a healthy lifestyle. “Don’t smoke, fast intermittently, don’t eat sugar, don’t eat fast foods, avoid pollution, eat organic, exercise, maintain a healthy weight, eat kale, eat the right turmeric, drink moderately, stay calm, stay positive, get mammograms, drink tea, make sure you get vitamin D, don’t use a dry cleaner, eat salmon, follow a Mediterranean diet, etc.”
How many cancer patients could fill up an entire page with all the things we’ve been told would have, could have, even should have prevented our hearing those awful words, “It’s cancer”? I know I could.
Here are some facts for you: I never ate fast food. I didn’t smoke, drink or use drugs. I ran, walked, and did yoga. I drank green or herbal tea every morning. I didn’t drink soda. I was the one eating my veggies at lunch and drinking water or tea while my staff ate hot dogs and Doritos and drank soda. I ate almost completely vegan for nine years. My only vice was chocolate. Dark chocolate was my favorite and is supposed to be an anti-cancer. I tried to avoid chemicals whenever possible. I didn’t dye my hair and rarely wore nail polish. We even use an organic, food-based, kid, and pet-safe fertilizer on our grass. I was only 37 when I was diagnosed and not even due for my first mammogram (USPSTF guidelines say 50, but ACOG recommends 40).
It turns out you can have every risk factor and never get cancer. And you can have zero risk factors and get cancer. It’s very random. You can have a normal mammogram and have your cancer missed on the imaging.
There is also this myth that if your cancer is caught early, it will be curable. There are all different types of breast cancer. Some types are more aggressive than others. Some breast cancers are driven by estrogen or progesterone hormones, and some are not. Someone can have more than one type of breast cancer at once. I had three different types of breast cancer found in my left breast: DCIS (cancer confined to the duct), invasive ductal carcinoma (cancer that ruptured out of the duct), and Paget’s in the nipple. I got checked out just days after symptoms developed, and I find myself with a 10-year survival rate of 50 percent.
Cancer does not discriminate. It doesn’t care if you are ultra-rich or ultra-poor. Cancer strikes the ultra-religious, atheists, and everyone in between. Babies get cancer, and so do the elderly. Vegetarians and meat-eaters get cancer. Physicians get cancer. Let me say this again: Cancer does not discriminate. It’s an awful hand to be dealt for anyone. So please let’s stop blaming the cancer patients for their diagnosis and support them in any way that we can.
Gabrielle Koczab is a family physician.
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