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.
This is such an interesting perspective. I think, for many of us regardless of culture or religion, we think to ourselves at some point, “What have I done to deserve this?” I know I have on many occasions. I’m curious, do you think people have this reaction to cancer and illness in a largely Catholic culture? Is it part of Dominican culture? Would you say it’s Catholics in other countries, including America, as well?
It’s hard when people think we have to explain everything or find something or someone to blame for the things that are either unexplainable or just bad luck. Sometimes there is no reason for the things that happen to us. It’s hard for people to wrap their brains around that. I get that. I really do. But victimizing the victim isn’t the answer.
I’m glad you wrote about this. I’ve done a few posts about breast cancer in other countries. I’ve been interested in it both from a cultural standpoint and healthcare standpoint. I think we need to educate ourselves on not just how breast cancer is perceived in this country but around the world.
Carrie, I am not sure what forces people to blame others for their misfortunes. I think there are many reasons. These people want to convince themselves that they are safe by looking for reasons to blame others (denial strikes again!). I don’t know if Catholicism would be the only reason although religion can partially contribute to this belief. I wouldn’t say all Catholics feel this way. For the DR I think it’s multiple things: ignorance, religion, denial, anger (complicated topic), etc.
I have wondered about how many people ignore a symptom because they think they’ve been doing “all the right things.” This level of ignorance can interfere with their own awareness about being sick. I only hope this isn’t the case.
Thank you for reading and commenting on this post.
Viewing cancer as a punishment is a pretty cruel way to look at it. I guess families like mine (brca+) and yours are jinxed because of some horrible dark side we have then if this line of thinking were to hold water. People prefer cause and effect situations. People like simple explanations as to why bad things happen, but many times, such as with cancer, there just aren’t any. I’m sorry you’ve had people insinuate you are to blame for your cancer. Even when you know this isn’t true, it still has to hurt a little. And that man’s comment on the train was so out of line. Blaming patients for their cancer is so hurtful, unhelpful and, of course, unacceptable. Thanks for the post.
Nancy, it is very cruel indeed. People always look for answers because they want a level of control. Unfortunately, cancer is not something we have control over (and neither is mortality). And yes, it has hurt me a little when people have insinuated that my family (including myself) have some kind of “debt.” It sounds pretty arrogant too.
Thank you for reading and commenting.
Could give a long explanation for this blaming stuff but I think it has been covered above. From a social standpoint “sick” people are broken and maybe dangerously harboring some plague. Or we’ve met death and have a lesser alliance with the living–“one foot on the platform and one foot on the train…” Even my psychologist declared that by not forgiving those who hurt us we cause our own illnesses. By this logic bad people are providing a service to us. They continue to remain jerks (an apparently natural human attribute) and we are cured by forgiving their cruelty. Doesn’t sound like a good deal to me.
And really, we basically are not good at this very serious stuff. We stumble with emotional topics and say dumb things but I’ll save my forgiveness for people who accidentally hurt me.
Scott, have you heard of the “forgiveness therapy?” Here’s a link I came across the other day: https://www.facebook.com/cbnnews/videos/10155838315755393/ (avoid reading the comments below the video as there are many “culturally disturbed people.”). This idea is a little over the top for me.
While I believe forgiving can improve emotional health, I don’t think it should be a consideration for treating cancer. That puts a lot of pressure on the patient — in addition to being misleading — and may create situations where some people can lack awareness about their health.
I don’t even understand the real meaning of forgiveness. It’s too complicated for me and I would rather walk away from situations (and people) that make me unhappy.
Thank you for reading and commenting.
Rebecca, I’ve read quite a bit about forgiveness and understand the psychological potential of releasing anger. Plus there’s spiritual grace in removing habit of judging from our behavior that also seems to be associated with having a self-poisoning attitude. I need to look it up because some people can explain forgiveness as a spiritual value and not just another pop-psychology thing.
As for forgiveness therapy it would have been a lot easier to accept the what the guy said if he’d balanced his numbers. Is it a meaningful statistic that people with cancer have issues with forgiveness? What is the population baseline for this? What actual, meaningful correlation is there between cancer and a unforgiveness. It’s just more thoughtless cruelty, especially coming from someone who makes a buck pushing this.
Dealing with harm that seems to have no cause is not a play thing for people who just run their mouth for a living.
I don’t disagree that a person’s outlook on life can in some ways make them ill. But there’s something in this opinion that needs more direct evidence. Both my father and his father died of heart failure. I’ve survived one heart attack and two total failures plus had cancer and still I’m alive. I must be a fricken saint!
Scott, I agree with all you said. Let’s not forget cancer is a big money-maker. Just the other day I participated in an event sponsored by the organization SHARE (spa day) where the keynote speaker stated cancer was a gift to her and it helped her discover what she wanted out of life, because otherwise, she would have been lost. She also asked for us to “listen” to what cancer was trying to tell us — because cancer was a teacher. This was a cancer survivor, dx at 16, now in her 40’s. She was selling her book and some skin care products she came up with and said everything she ever did, was thanks to the awakening from her cancer. I almost choked on my arugula when I heard her speak and the only thing I regret was not standing up to say something back — did not want to ruin the “positive energy” from spa day. As long as there’s no cure or no scientific fact on why cancer happens, anyone can come up with anything and try to make a living. (We can’t tell another survivor how to cope with their cancer and this is one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to change the culture, because some have already adopted the belief.)
Everyone will always come up with a reason of why cancer happens (and why some survive) because they want to convince themselves it won’t happen to them. A family member once said to me, “see? Everything happens for a reason. There’s your book!” Someone else said, I survived because my mission was to help others. Ah! and my favorite of them all, “you have been given another chance, don’t waste it!” See what I mean? It can’t simply be, “oh you got lucky glad the chemo worked for you. I hope this is the last time you have to deal with this.” Everything has to be dramatic like a Mexican novela.
Rebecca, your mentioning of Mexican novellas reminds me of how we build cultures and then elaborate on them with “appropriate” themed activities. The novella’s dramatic flourish feeds into the traditional antics of Mexican wrestling style crazy characters we used to see on TV growing up in California. The cancer industry seems to have this same cultural split of the serious and the popular.
For me the Alberta Cross Cancer Institute plays the role of the mother church from which I was banished from care for being impolite in my fear. (Sadly, when feeling threatened I fight back instead of the culturally appropriate ass-kissing of authority and this can only lead to further disconnection).
At first I thought the study of the medical culture behind the “cure for cancer” would reveal some answers to why I feel alienated from care. Now though with your mention of the Mexican novella I think the truth is revealed in the response of us patients who act out the damage in so many different ways.
Not sure if this makes sense but there seems to be a whole culture called “hurt by cancer” that has spawned its own “industry” of healing fetishes, heroes and heroines, myths and of course, support for those “looking for the cure” without finding it.
If it’s OK with you Rebecca I’d like put this reply into my next (infrequent) blog. Your blog here is an example or the inspiration that comes from reading the words of others. Not to mention your modeling of the unbeaten person facing challenges that directly to how we as a society are not as nice as we claim.
Scott, feel free to write about anything you’d like and if you want to use anything from this blog, I’ll be honored. The more we expose these concerns and perspectives, the better.
Looking forward to reading your next post.
Very interesting. I tend to blame bad genes for my generation of cancer… Because my great-grandmother and grandmother lived to 100 years of age, as a child I thought I had good long-lived genes. Then my parents both died at 75 & 76 years of age, and my eldest sister died of colon cancer at age 56. Then 2 more sisters had [and survived] breast cancer. And then I ended up with kidney cancer! The only unscathed sister still smokes. Go figure. I don’t feel we are being punished, although I did grow up in a family who considered cancer a bad word, only to be whispered. It was like a death sentence. When my eldest sister was diagnosed, I assumed she ‘represented’ all of us, there-fore the other sisters would be cancer free. Needless to say, by the time I had my cancer in 2010/11, I was waiting for the hammer to strike. I didn’t tell my inlaws about my cancer/surgery until after my surgery. I didn’t want their sympathy? I didn’t want to see that look in their eyes.
It took me a long time to come to terms/acceptance of my body ‘turning’ on me. And realizing how fragile I was/am. And how strong.
Recovery is long, on the inside.
I am very sorry for your losses.
Cancer was considered a “bad word” in my family too — to some degree — and I think part of that may be related to the “punishment” concept and the idea of feeling ashamed. I think some of that has changed because of the number of people who have been diagnosed in my family. I think some of these ideas may shift due to the increase number of diagnoses that are happening. I do feel it is perfectly acceptable for patients to keep their diagnosis private if that is their comfort zone.
I agree the healing process takes time. I am glad you’ve found some ways to cope.
Thank you for reading and commenting.
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Rebecca, I love this post! I’ve long been a proponent of what I call no-fault cancer. I too have been on the receiving end of others’ thoughts about the deficiency in my spiritual life because I got cancer, although nothing like what you undoubtedly experienced from those of your culture. You hit the nail on the head when you said illness is a sad reminder that we are not eternal in this life.
Eileen, I am sorry people have suggested “better ways” on how to live your life. I wonder how these ideas would evolve as the number of cancer cases increases. For now all we can do is try to educate and do our best not to be effected by how these people see us.
Thank you for reading and commenting.
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I struggle with feeling guilty about being overweight. That being overweight is what caused my cancer. Or could it be that I like a glass of red wine occasionally? Is it the air freshener I used? The cosmetics I put on my face? What did I do wrong? My surgeon was very kind to me when I first saw him and I was trying to ask him how could I get cancer? No one in my family has had cancer. He told me it’s not your fault. That was very comforting for me.
Rene, I wish we all knew the reasons why we get cancer, then we would have a cure. My genetics counselor once told that it isn’t as simple as one answer, it could be multiple reasons and all coming from different directions. Our bodies are complex and cells are complicated (and very smart!).
We all seek a level of control and knowing “why” would give us that. One of the hardest things I find about having cancer is losing control. I carry a mutated gene which could have caused my cancer so I can hold on to that keeping in mind there’s nothing I can do to change it.
Please don’t be too hard on yourself. There are many people who do more damage to their bodies than you do (not saying that you do) and they never get cancer. Some people are luckier than others. Cancer isn’t anyone’s fault.
Thank you for reading and commenting.
Rebecca, this is an insightful, excellent post. You’ve really hit on something here: the blame game. It’s so harmful to assign guilt for a disease onto someone. I have a friend whose church once announced, “Our son has diabetes through no fault of his own.” This was done obviously to tell the congregation that the son was not a sinner. Cancer just happens. Excellent post!
Beth, amazing how the church pointed it out. It says a lot about this culture of ours. But hey, at least they didn’t blame the child (and hopefully not the parents either).
Thank you for taking the time to read this post and for commenting.