Ever wonder why some people don’t like to talk about their cancer? I was one of these people, at least at the beginning. Many patients don’t want anyone to know except for maybe those closer to them.
You see a lot of this attitude in the Dominican Republic where I grew up, and where Catholicism is the main religion, and the idea of “punishment” for your “sins” is part of our upbringing. For example, just the other day a family member in DR told me that a friend there had died from cancer, and no one had any idea she had it.
Unfortunately one of the reasons some people keep their cancer to themselves is because, in some cultures, it is perceived as a punishment. Because cancer patients are afraid of been judged, they don’t reach out to many people for support.
Imagine how lonely it must feel when you are surrounded by people who view you as a sinner who deserves cancer. Not everyone feels this way of course, and I don’t want to beat up the DR. It’s not the only country where SOME people share this belief. Here in the US, some people feel the same way too although I haven’t encountered as many.
When this idea turns cultural, how can we change that culture, and how long would it take? There are so many elements that make up a culture: religion, social habits, patterns of behaviors, education, family attitudes, communication styles, etc.
When we introduce such ideas in a society, patients start blaming themselves for getting cancer, making their experience more unbearable. I’ve even had moments of feeling guilty about my own cancer, thinking that maybe I was being punished, although I never view other people’s cancers as being a punishment. This feeling of feeling guilty didn’t last long because it was unfair and unkind to myself to feel this way. It would have made my recovery process a lot more difficult. This behavior would also suggest that those who don’t get cancer, or any other illness — the non-sinners — have control over me.
This idea of being punished is introduced from a very young age. As a kid, I used to climb trees, and once I fell. The first thing I heard from my grandparents was, “que bueno! That way you learn your lesson to stop climbing.” My grandparents were wonderful parents to me but this is the culture we have in the DR, like in many other places. We are taught about punishment and often feel the need to judge others (because this is a lot easier than blaming ourselves). So anything that hurts a person at a mental or physical level may be considered a punishment caused by a bad behavior. This idea has always bothered me, especially because I have a family history of cancers and it has made me feel isolated at times — maybe more from people in the DR than in the US.
I have been approached by people who have insinuated that there is some kind of karma situation impacting my family. That we should ask God for forgiveness. I even had a family member tell me that she is trying to find out what our ancestors did to deserve our family’s punishment of cancer. She is looking for answers for something no one has control over and no one really understands. I’ve also been counseled to forgive (this is a challenge for me I admit) and to choose a church I can commit to going to, or else my soul will not be saved from this cancer.
An old friend, also from the DR, once texted me after finding out about my cancer and said, “don’t worry my friend. You will have good karma soon.” So I must have been quite the bitch in my past life. But at least other people were slightly kinder to me. They blamed my parents. Someone was praying for me and suggested that because I was born out of wedlock, it wasn’t really my fault— I was automatically “a sin” and this could have attracted all kinds of punishments from hell. Because we all know cancer comes from hell. Was I a child from hell too? This brings back “sweet memories” from Catholic school.
Another instance that really bothered me was the time I came across a cancer patient online who was beating himself up about why he got his cancer – interesting that he was originally from the island too. He wrote, “I deserved to get cancer because I was unkind to women.” The fact that he was a jackass toward women has nothing to do with his cancer. Not only is he telling the world that he deserved his cancer but he is insinuating that every person who gets it is paying for something they did (or did not do). Is it his fault to think that way though? I blame the culture.
It especially hurts me when people blame my loved ones for their cancers. My aunt, who was diagnosed with leukemia a year and half ago, who by the way was a Christian worship leader in her DR church, and a wonderful mother and aunt, was even criticized about her cancer. I got into an argument with someone on the train who thought that, because I was “done with cancer,” I was not going to take his comment as offensive. He said that God put my aunt in that situation so she can straighten her life. I said, “Are you suggesting I deserved my cancer too?!” He right away tried to fix it by stating my case was “different.” God was testing my faith. I thought to myself, “yea right!!” then proceeded to defend my aunt. How unfortunate and unkind.
And what about children who get cancer? What are these children paying for, exactly? How inhuman can you be to blame these children, or their parents, for the child’s disease? What about the trees whose only job is to stand and provide beauty and life to our planet? How about the animals who get cancer? Two of my pets died from cancer and all they ever did was love me unconditionally and bring me happiness.
Why do people feel the need to judge all the time and to assign blame?
It is so sad that there are such “culturally disturbed” people out there, to the point of having the sick people feel horribly guilty about something they simply had no control over. This is NOT helpful in any way. It makes the patient feel awfully sad, hopeless and alone. But it also says a lot about those people who believe in such ideas. They are in complete denial. Do they think they are immortal?
Do these culturally disturbed people realize they will face mortality one day too? I wonder what their sin will have been? Maybe arrogance. Or lack of empathy. Probably mostly ignorance.
Cancer is no punishment to anyone. It is a sad reminder that we are not eternal in life. We will all die one day; some will go earlier than others. There is no way of us knowing how. Sometimes there are no answers. Sometimes there is just luck and no luck. Please be kind to those in pain. If you are one of the “culturally disturbed people,” just keep things to yourself. Think of others more, and less about yourself. No need to share your beliefs with the sick people or their family.
Keep in mind that one day, the cancer patient may be you. I only hope you don’t blame yourself.