Victim Blaming as Part of the Cancer Narrative
We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.
I do wish that people would stop offering opinions to newly diagnosed patients about why they got lung cancer in the first place. While there may be good intentions involved, it is part of the cycle of victim blaming particularly ingrained in the cultural view of lung cancer. There are a number of progressively more offensive “causes” that I have read about recently, often in actual cancer support communities online. It appears that the Internet can turn any one of us into an expert, ready to dispense dangerous advice with an air of authority.
Were you a smoker?
The most common thought voiced by people when they learn of a person’s lung cancer diagnosis is that it must have been caused by smoking. The admission that a patient smoked is a safe justification for the disease — after all, it says so right on the package that smoking may cause cancer. But what it really does is raise the risk that a smoker will get cancer, and not just lung cancer, but a selection of cancers. But do not ask this question, because even if the patient did smoke, it may have had little or nothing to do with the particular type of lung cancer that has developed. Sure, smoking is a terribly bad habit to engage in, with many negative health ramifications, but just by asking whether a patient was a smoker is like suggesting it is probably something that the patient brought upon herself.
And if it was not smoking, the patient probably never checked the house for radon gas. After all, the colorless, odorless, radioactive gas is among the leading risk factors driving lung cancer among non-smokers. It leaches out of ground soil, through small structural cracks, and into basements where, with poor ventilation, it can become concentrated enough to pose an actual threat. Not all areas have high enough occurrences of radon gas to be a health concern, but it is easy to suggest that it could have been checked for — and if it wasn’t, there is only one person to blame.
Likewise, a suggestion that the cancer was the byproduct of city or freeway pollution again places the blame and associated guilt squarely back on the patient. She should have moved, or never lived in that area in the first place. And going to school in such a location? That should never have been allowed. Someone is clearly at fault here, even if nobody is pointing a finger.
Food is not magic
But that is where the plausible guilt ends and the seeds for vaguer but no less toxic guilt begin to form. You can barely do a Google search on cancer prevention or cures without an onslaught of results claiming that it is all about the Western diet. You ate the wrong foods. You did not eat enough of the right foods. Your dietary choices are responsible for your cancer — but don’t worry, you can eat your way to being “cancer-free” in no time! Unless it does not work, in which case, you simply did not adhere closely enough to the prescribed diet. It is still you, Lung Cancer Patient, because the protocol always works, food is magic, and you failed to do it right. As with virtually every Wellness Warrior recipe for a cure out there, it is always the patient’s fault when the cure does not happen. The same goes for using the wrong strain of cannabis in your suppositories. You must have deviated from the instructions because it is always the patient who is responsible for her own health, failure or success. Except with the success, because then someone else will always be ready to jump in and claim the victory so it can be sold to another patient before being revealed as fraud.
My real pet peeves, however, are for the claims that it is entirely the patient’s fault in ways that he had complete control over: either he worked too hard and got cancer from the stress, she never came to terms with her repressed and unresolved emotional issues (in which case, lets also blame the absentee parents or the evil ex-husband who caused a bitter divorce or the childhood trauma or the bad business partner), or the granddaddy of all cancer nonsense, he did something really awful in a former life.
That’s right, not just unresolved childhood issues, but an act you performed as a dead (but probably famous) person you know nothing about and cannot remember without some sort of expensive regression therapy. So you definitely caused your own illness — cancer is probably just one manifestation — but if you come to terms with it now, all will be healed. If you really, truly believe it and take the necessary, but impossible steps. Otherwise, you’ve clearly been given the tools to clean up the mess you made for yourself so that cancer is all on you.
Lending an open ear
All of these things, even the crazy ones with no logic or understanding of biological science behind them, probably are suggested by well-intentioned people who genuinely believe they are enlightening the patient. Maybe they feel that a real cure can be found if the patient only embraces the obvious cause. But lung cancer patients have enough going on with their physical and mental health already. They don’t need to begin questioning whether this was a disease they brought upon themselves. They don’t need to add guilt to their fear or trepidation. And you can let the patient guide the dialogue, following her clues for understanding about how she feels or what she needs. Because rather than offering up a can of shaming, sometimes it is good for people to take a moment to understand they do not have all the answers and maybe, just maybe, it will serve the patient best to simply listen.