Who Survives Cancer … and Why?

When people are diagnosed with cancer, the question “why me?” looms large.  For those fortunate enough to survive, the question arises again. While definitive answers to who gets sick and who gets better remain elusive, the questions remain.

In 2016, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. I didn’t spend much time asking “why me” because it didn’t seem like a healthy road to go down. After being successfully treated and recovering, I have the luxury of pondering the second question. Why did I survive while others did not?

In transplant support groups, I often hear people say that everything happens for a reason. I think that is true in a narrow, probabilistic sense. Personal medical history, comorbidities, environmental factors, and genetic abnormalities can dramatically alter the chances of getting and surviving cancer.  

But when people say everything happens for a reason, they usually mean that there is a larger, metaphysical reason for the differential survival of patients. As a sociologist, I understand the quest for meaning in the face of life-threatening illness and I respect belief systems that provide comfort and reassurance. 

But I just don’t buy it. I don’t think there is an overarching rhyme, reason, or plan that explains life’s most fateful outcomes, whether “miraculously” good or horrifically bad.  Despite our impulse to find larger meanings in such events and after acknowledging how medical interventions can improve our odds, I think there is an irreducible randomness when it comes to surviving a lethal illness.

These thoughts were triggered when people gave me “credit” for surviving my disease. I have always felt uncomfortable accepting such credit.  Part of my discomfort stems from the coupling of credit and blame and the unintended consequences of such thinking.  For example, does crediting survivors for their “positive thinking” imply that non-survivors just weren’t positive enough? 

As a patient, there were several coping mechanisms I relied upon throughout my treatment. But I will never know if there was any causal connection between those practices and my positive outcome. What I do know is that they maintained my sanity and preserved my identity during the most challenging experience of my life. 

While acknowledging that outcomes may be unpredictable and somewhat random, sustaining ourselves along the way is a worthy goal in itself.  And if it does enhance our odds of survival, so much the better. My own story of what I did to sustain my self will be the subject of posts to follow.