Many people have a nasty response to victims of things like poverty, rape, and, yes, cancer. They make the assumption that the victim deserved it: poor people are lazy or stupid; rape victims hang out in bars or they dress provocatively; and cancer victims either make poor lifestyle choices or have bad genetics, or both.
People seem to want to believe that we can control what happens to us; they don’t want to face the fact that bad things can happen to good people. The fact is that anyone could become poor, get raped, or get cancer. More than 75% of women with breast cancer have no family history of the disease, and many of them also have very healthy lifestyles.
Even worse, sometimes the victims blame themselves and try to link their misfortune to their own behavior. In an article in AARP Magazine, Melissa Etheridge famously attributed her breast cancer to her poor diet.
In reality, cancer is caused by some combination of genetics, lifestyle, and toxins in the environment, as well as bad luck. Genetics and luck are not preventable causes, but lifestyle and environmental toxins are.
The sad thing is that the oncology community tends to focus on the lifestyle factors and ignore the environmental toxins. They take a “blame-the-victim” attitude toward the cause of cancer, attributing the rising cancer rates to individual heredity and lifestyles. Rarely do we see oncologists demanding corporate accountability for releasing carcinogens into the environment.
Many of the breast cancer charities do the same thing with their marathons and pink ribbons, sending the message that women should wear a smile and a pink ribbon, join a marathon, and put the responsibility for avoiding or surviving breast cancer on themselves.
One charity that takes a different approach is Breast Cancer Action, which demands that government and corporations take the responsibility for the carcinogens in our food water, air, and the products we use. Breast Cancer Action launched a project called “Think Before You Pink” in 2002. This campaign calls for more transparency and accountability by companies that take part in breast cancer fundraising and encourages consumers to ask critical questions about pink ribbon promotions. Unlike many other charities, Breast Cancer Action rejects corporate funding from companies that contribute to or profit from breast cancer.
Even when we do focus on lifestyle factors, we find that the blame is less clear than many want to believe. For example, many “lifestyle” factors are related to income inequality and its resulting stresses: poor diet, long working hours, jobs with exposure to chemicals, and substandard housing in polluted areas. Socioeconomic factors should be considered in developing cancer prevention strategies that do not blame the victims, but the United States is a long way from that.
Even the really obvious things like cigarette smoking can be seen from more than one perspective. Americans tend to view smokers as ignorant and weak, and they believe that smokers can quit if they really want to. This is what the tobacco industry wants us to believe, but it fails to take into account what we know about the complex process of addiction that typically targets children and teenagers.
The fact is that we will all become victims, if not to cancer, then to something else. We need to treat all victims the way we will want to be treated when our turn comes—not with blame but with kindness and love.