Smoking Doesn’t Cause Cancer

When I was first diagnosed with cancer it really took a lot of people by surprise, myself included of course, however, it seemed I was a little less caught off guard than others. I remember sitting in the parking lot immediately after that fateful doctor’s appointment and calmly thinking,

“Ok…I have cancer. I wonder what comes next.”

And that was it. I didn’t gnash my teeth, punch the steering wheel, break down into hysterics or anything like that. I just accepted it and moved on. Others, I came to find out, were a little more introspective, which is understandable. They didn’t have to figure out how to deal with cancer physically, but were left to just debate the how’s and why’s of it all. Admittedly, I didn’t realize just how many people were confused by my diagnosis and how deeply it affected some of them. Little by little though, friends and acquaintances of mine let on that they were really confused by the diagnosis and it really shook their perception of health, both in general and for themselves. A couple people even contacted me privately to inquire about my symptoms before diagnosis, afraid they might be dealing with a similar circumstance. Fortunately, nothing turned out as dire as expected.

The surprise and confusion others felt was related to the perception that I was “that healthy guy”, the one doing all the “right” things to avoid cancer. I was active, eating a vegan, primarily whole foods diet, etc. etc. For ME to get cancer was just absurd and, in some people’s minds, meant that they were all the more susceptible. Now, I’ve always taken every opportunity to negate the “bulletproof” health claims attributed to a plant-based diet, but it wasn’t lost on me that I was following all the suggestions related to diet and lifestyle in order to “fight cancer”. Eating more fruits and vegetables? Check. Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise 3 times a week? Try at least 60 minutes, 7 times a week. I was doing everything “right”.

But here I am with a scar that nearly cuts me in two, a body filled with poisons, and no end in sight.

So what went “wrong”?

Honestly….nothing. Nothing went “wrong”, the process of evolution and biological “imperfection” simply went “right”. That is to say, the process of cancering was triggered in me by a number of genetic misfirings that enabled my cancer to reproduce out of control, or from the perspective of my cancer, it subverted all my biological checks and balances and managed to succeed in winning the game of survivalism. It kept itself alive with a vigor that we all aspire to achieve amidst all the things that could go “wrong” in our existence. Just as the lion kills the lamb. Just as tornados wipe out entire towns. Just as pine trees choke out the sun from fledgling saplings. Just as armies kill invading armies. Just as surgeons slice out disease.

So does disease consume bodies.

There is no moral right or wrong to this process…it is simply a process of evolution and biological living and dying that is a tiny part of a much larger picture of existence, of population control, of genetic culling, of unconscious, unintentional reproduction. That’s it.

However, this idea of chance and circumstance and evolutionary biology has not resonated deep enough in our collective psyche to dissuade us from looking for an enemy, a singular force that uses cancer against us. We look for something to blame, to explain it all away and afford us the idea that we have some degree of control over this process, that we can know EXACTLY what to do in order to avoid getting cancer. And so we look for that singular enemy. Industrial pollution. Smoking. Carcinogens. Sugar. Meat. Nitrates. Stress. Coffee (ridiculous, I know). Etc. Etc. Etc. We want to believe that one thing or another CAUSES cancer, so that we have somewhere to point the finger and can explain away why people who do all the “right” things still get cancer.

I used to think this way as well. Before actually getting cancer I really didn’t understand the process of how it develops, but now that I’m in the thick of it, my knowledge has grown and I see the inadequacy and confusion popular culture inadvertently creates through addressing singular cancer causing agents. Most people are led to believe that individuals who smoke get cancer because they smoke. At best they are pitied, at worst they are vilified. We are led to believe that maybe drinking contaminated water creates cancer in people and so fingers are pointed at polluters and corporations (which isn’t the worst thing if you ask me). We are led to believe that any one lifestyle habit creates cancer and so it’s the fault of the person who gets cancer that it happened. There is one problem to this though.

People who smoke their entire lives often don’t get cancer. Notice I said “Often”. That’s because, statistically, those that smoke their entire lives and don’t get cancer are not anomalies….they are the norm. And people who eat hot dogs in excessive proportions don’t often get cancer. And people who are glued to cell phones, live under electrical wires, drink suspect water, etc., don’t often get cancer. Statistically, it has been shown that any ONE factor simply doesn’t CREATE cancer.

I read a quote recently that said, “We don’t get cancer…we are always cancer-ing”, which is to say that cancer is a PROCESS. We ALL have cancer cells in our body that are reproducing, but we have biological checks and balances that reign in the growth and kill the reproducing cells. The problem begins when those walls of defense against cancer growth are somehow subverted, and not just ONE wall, but multiple walls of defense.

Cancer cells reproduce out of control when an aggravating factor leads to a genetic misfiring, or informational signals between cells get crossed, and then happens again, and then again, and then again, and then again….and suddenly cancer cells become “Cancer”. They go from being small C cancer to big C Cancer. But it doesn’t just happen because a person smoked cigarettes and the toxins in the cigarettes somehow caused cancer to simply form and grow. And that’s why I say, “Smoking doesn’t cause cancer.” Smoking is a proven aggravator to cancer reproduction, but it isn’t THE factor, because it is merely ONE aggravator among a handful of other aggravators….and in that is why cancer is so seemingly impossible to “cure” in the way we’ve almost cured Polio.

We can’t simply find ONE enemy that creates cancer and legislate against it, or find ONE drug that stops cancer from reproducing, because it is seemingly more than one disease….it is like a unique disease to every individual unfortunate enough to have all the misfirings lead to full blown cancer. And finding out what those misfirings are in each individual is a, as of now, impossible puzzle to decipher. That, of course, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

This awareness that cancer is unique to each individual and is caused by so many misfirings or genetic abnormalities, however, helps me to reconcile the fact that there are those of us that happen to “do all the right things” and still get cancer. Yes, certain lifestyle habits aggravate cancer reproduction and increase the probability of getting full blown cancer, and I would never advocate smoking, eating animals, drinking contaminated water, living next to nuclear reactors or any other such habit, but to singularly blame one factor or another is misunderstanding how cancer reproduces and leads to a lot of confusion and heartache for those that are unfortunate enough to get it.

I DO understand why friends and acquaintances want to explain away my cancer, want and almost NEED to find an enemy to point to…because I think it not only helps them reconcile my situation, but also gives them some comfort in relation to their own circumstance, to convince themselves that they will most likely not get cancer because they didn’t grow up where I did, or don’t engage in some of the lifestyle habits I do. Unfortunately, this is just an act of appeasement and doesn’t address the specifics of the biological process of cancer reproduction, but then again, when it seems like we are just banging our heads against a wall of ineffective treatment and only episodic “cures”, it’s understandable that we are compelled to seek some manner of control and reconciliation with this losing battle against evolutionary checks and balances.

Trust me, I fault no one in this perspective. Until I had to face it head on, I grasped onto the same simplistic justifications to explain why cancer rates continue to rise, why my sister died, and why my friends continue to get cancer.

It’s much easier, and human nature, to point a finger at the intentions of an enemy or conscious force than it is to just accept that we live in an abstractly defined “imperfect” world, that we are pushed and pulled by forces beyond our control, and that we are merely physical beings subject to all the processes of a physical world that we arbitrarily define as good or bad. Sometimes “bad” things happen and we have no comfortable grounding or perspective to make sense of it…and that’s just how it is.

Everything happens without a reason.

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15 responses to “Smoking Doesn’t Cause Cancer

  1. I love this post. I feel the same way about cancer. Everything happens without a reason. I have to remember that line. Brilliant.

    • Thank you Gayle. That line is, probably obviously, a response to the statement, “Everything happens for a reason”, which I wholeheartedly disagree with (depending on your framing of the term “reason”). Regardless, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Trails and Ultras

    Very interesting…I didn’t know this was how cancer developed, even though it impacted my family hugely as my mother was sick with it for much of my childhood. I like your clinical way of viewing the situation. In the UK we have a cancer charity that does fantastic work, but its current tagline is ‘cancer…we’re coming to get you.’ Its a powerful message and has had a huge impact, which is great, but I find it hard to relate to the personification of a disease as a malicious and evil sentient being. Your post reminded me of the adverts, how desperate we are to find someone to blame.

    • Trails and Ultras, I’m no scientist so I’m just trying to rehash some of the information I’ve come across that has helped me understand this more. I’m trying to get it as accurate as possible, but if you want a more informed detailing of this, I would suggest reading The Truth In Small Doses and The Cancer Chronicles. They are both engaging, easy to read books on a complex subject. Regarding your thoughts about the line “Cancer…we’re coming to get you.”, I think you would enjoy The Cancer Chronicles as he addresses similar notions and marketing campaigns that I also find somewhat awkward and, at times, frustrating.

  3. Thank you, first of all, for calling out cancer for what it really is. Part of my job is to seek out things like “cancer clusters” and draw conclusions that various environmental contaminants are the cause of cancer, or respiratory disease, or other such things. It’s not entirely bullshit, but you’re exactly right. We’ve all “got” cancer.

    And yes, life is random and everything happens without a reason. But as free-willed beings, we get to create purpose out of the lack of reason through the way we choose to deal with it. And I have mad respect for how you’ve chosen to deal with this particular example of reasonlessness, which is not a word but should be.

    • Emma, I agree that environmental factors (pollution, lifestyle habits, breathing, etc.) are significant factors that affect cancer development, but I just wanted to address the idea that it’s not so simplistic as we make it out to be. I think you would really enjoy The Cancer Chronicles, which addresses this in depth. I read it in 2 mornings. I’ll loan it to you if you’d like.

      I also believe that despite the undirected circumstances we find ourselves in, human nature compels us to create an understanding or at least find a value in any given situation…sometimes it’s the only thing we have to get us through. Thanks for your good words and I hope we can all meet up soon!

      -Scott

  4. Wow Emma and Scott I love what both of you wrote! Thanks

  5. When I first started reading your blog, I had those thoughts. You’re one of the healthiest people… well not that I “know”… but certainly that I’m aware of… and vegan, so it just didn’t seem “right” that you’d be diagnosed with cancer. I think part of the reason people want to blame a behavior or find a reason, myself included, is that we need to make sense of something that, as you are keenly aware, makes no sense. Sometimes there is no order, sometimes life is not in balance. That’s very hard for me, personally, to take. I can’t speak for all people but I’d imagine many feel that way. It’s unsettling.

    I appreciate the honesty in your writing, and this blog is one of my absolute favorites. I don’t know if you’re spiritual or not, but I pray for you sometimes. I hope you’re having a good day today.

    • Thank you for these good words….coming to terms with the episodic lack of order in our lives is certainly not easy, but I draw from other sources that put it all in context and that helps me get through. I hope you find some comfort in it along the way. Thanks for reading and I hope to have more positive reports down the line.

  6. You don’t know me, but I know you from the DINO, Chicago 2009/2010, and Indy Mini (because of how incredibly fast your are). Me and my cousin believe Brian H. should name the DINO Championship Trophy “The Spitz.”

    I feel awful for what you’re going through. There are a lot of others like us that feel the same way.

    • Hey Anonymous,

      Thank you for your support, I genuinely appreciate it. I so hope I can get past this and back to the trails to run some more DINO races with you. In the meantime, take down some of those courses on my behalf!

  7. Genetics influence so much more than people currently or will ever understand. I never got this, I mean it never registered as believable until I was struck down with a series of rare illnesses in my early to mid 20’s. Prior to this I always believed we held our own fate in our hands and we could deflect disaster (cancer, disease) if we are healthy and avoided smoking ect. – boy was I wrong. I was once so terribly ignorant.

    I have a better understanding now of the world and how things work. Life isn’t fair basically and we’re living under Murphy’s law in my opinion (whatever can go wrong, will go wrong) .

    I have accepted now what I can’t control. I blame no one or nothing for what had happened to me and in certainly don’t blame myself, I understand it as a process of life. I do what I can but I know I’m not in the drivers seat of my destiny, nobody is. We are fragile beings set to expire regardless of our efforts to chase immortality.

    • Anne, I definitely learned A LOT about genes, cancer and our place in existence through this cancer experience too. It’s quite a fascinating subject of consideration and I wish the general public had a better understanding of how it all works…but we’re getting there I suppose. Thanks for your words.

      • People get absolutely furious when you remind them that there’s no real way to prevent cancer and that the disease can strike the healthy and sick alike. I had a woman scream at me in whole foods because I said a vegan diet wouldn’t make her bullet proof to Cancer. Obviously this comes from fear and ignorance. I can’t see these people changing their minds unless they themselves experience a life changing diagnosis and even that might still propel them to look for a source of blame for their disease. (Sigh). I call it the never ending blame game

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