Cancer is not a moral issue

One of the modern side-effects of finding out you have the Big C is the way people look at you, in a judgey, preachy kind of way. It isn’t helpful folks!

As if having cancer is not enough, you quickly discover that there’s a morality attached to illness these days. To be ill you must be negligent and have done something wrong – eaten badly, not exercised, smoked, drunk too much, become too fat.

You become a morally deficient person in the eyes of others, and even in your own. Cancer is no longer just a terrifying disease, but an embarrassment, admitted in the way that some deviancy might be confessed in hushed, shamed tones.

Except the truth is that cancer is not just caused by what you eat, your weight or the amount of exercise you do. It’s true that eating well and exercising can reduce your risk, but that is not the same as eliminating all risk. A large proportion of cancers are caused by factors outside your control – such as genes and environmental factors. Some have unknown causes.

The new morality around disease sees doctors become the finger-wagging high priests of wellness, spreading the mantra that you can live forever if only you go to the gym daily, avoid cream cakes and keep your BMI in the approved zone. A whole industry now exists that sells snake oil in the form of advice, books, classes and supplements to keep you well. Newspaper articles and blogs are full of unhelpful advice on reducing your cancer risk where they stray from advising on how to reduce it into the territory of  making out it is utterly or largely avoidable.

This is why you now find cancer patients protesting that they have always done the ‘right things’ – as though doing the ‘right thing’ is an insurance policy that guarantees health. Not only does this add to the agony of patients, but it stops people going to see their doctor early enough. Many people are in denial about their health because that daily green protein shake is a shield against disease.

But cancer doesn’t obey these overly simplistic rules. Healthy people get cancer. Children get cancer.

I’m a case in point. I’m 20 years too young to get the cancer I’m suffering from. I’ve always eaten a diet rich in fibre and vegetables. I’m slim, healthy, I’ve never smoked. Yet here I am much to the shock of everyone around me getting a large, ugly colon cancer. According to the experts my risk risk profile makes me one of the least likely people to get colon cancer – and yet I have it.

So my plea is this. Understand that cancer can and does happen to anyone. If you find out your friend, neighbour, colleague or relative has cancer don’t immediately assume it’s because they did something wrong or that your ‘rightness’ keeps you safe. Disease is not equivalent to a moral deficiency – it can be bad luck, the curse of your parents’ genes or of factors outside your control. Take the steps to minimise your risk by all means, but realise that there are no guarantees.

And if you find yourself tempted to be preachy, stop yourself. Be kind. Remember that even if the patient did all the ‘wrong’ things, they’re still worthy of compassion. Don’t you think the cancer person will ask themselves why it happened to them? Neither science, not you, has all the answers. So stop cancer shaming!

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