NPR logo How Can You Turn Off the Fear?

How Can You Turn Off the Fear?

Is cancer a curse to be handed down from generation to generation? A lot of you have written in about the uncertainty and fear that can grip families that are hit by cancer. Some, whose parents have gotten the disease, wonder if they're next. Those parents wonder if they will pass on the suffering to their children. And there is a strong genetic component in many types of cancer, but not all.

When I first got colon cancer five years ago, I asked my doctor if I needed to drastically alter my lifestyle. He laughed and said no, that my type of colon cancer was genetic. Let me explain why he laughed: I actually asked if I had to give up cheeseburgers, a recurring concern of mine. But he was right about the genetic part. My grandmother had it, my mother had it and I have it. So far, my sisters have escaped.

So it's not automatic, it's not certain, it's not a family curse. Except when it is. The worst part of all this may be the fear. Each generation just waiting for the bad news to strike. That's no way to live, but I can certainly understand it. How can you turn off that fear?

There is so much we don't know about cancer. There are certainly environmental factors, at least in some cancers. I think back to the time I spent in the burning oil fields in Kuwait, when the rain itself came down black. Was my cancer somehow related to Gulf War Syndrome? Probably not; that wouldn't explain my family history. But do those factors make you more susceptible? Who knows?

And in the end, it may not even matter. Honestly, I don't really care how I got it or why. I have it — that's the overwhelming reality, that's what I have to deal with. I would like to offer reassuring words to those who are worried that it's coming their way, that it's almost inevitable. But I don't have those words, other than to say learn all you can, talk to your doctors, make the lifestyle choices that make sense for you. But don't live in fear. Life is too short for that.

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