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Why Did I Get Leukemia?

By Jaehee Yi, Assistant Professor, College of Social Work, University of Utah; with assistance from Jonghee Kim, PhD Student, College of Social Work, University of Utah

Dr. Jaehee Yi

When I decided to move in with a roommate a few years ago, she said, “I would love to, but under the condition that we live without a microwave.” She was a cancer survivor. She had studied and applied all the information on cancer prevention. Not being sure what exactly the cause of her cancer was, she was trying to avoid any potentially harmful factors that might cause another. It was an interesting experience for me to live without the convenient microwave, but it also gave me an opportunity to think about what beliefs cancer patients and survivors have about the causes of their cancer.

September is Lymphoma and Leukemia Awareness Month. We do not know what causes leukemia and lymphoma. That is one reason patients and survivors ask themselves this agonizing question: “Why did I get cancer? Why me?”

In 2010, I interviewed 31 Korean cancer survivors who had been diagnosed before 19 years old, were currently between 15 and 39 years old, and had completed all cancer treatment. The majority of the interview participants were leukemia survivors. When I asked what they believed was the cause of their cancer, their answers ranged from bad eating habits, stealing from others, genetics, or computer games, to a stress-prone personality, poverty, God’s will, bad luck, or negative thoughts. It was shocking to find many of them blaming themselves for cancer. What was even sadder was that as children, most of them had put much energy into the question of why they got cancer, but none had received answers from the adults in their lives—with the exception of several older children who had searched the Internet to find some answers. Because of the stigma attached to cancer in Korea, the children did not dare to raise such natural questions out loud.

We – parents, friends and clinicians – tend to avoid these challenging questions to “protect” them, because nobody knows the answers and we are all scared of the unknown. However, it is important for us to talk with patients and survivors about their questions; they will ask these questions to themselves anyway. Together, by being open and willing to talk, we can become vital, supportive companions in a cancer journey that might be otherwise very lonely.

“Well… I know why I got cancer. I was a bad kid. When my mother gave me money for a church contribution, I instead bought a snack for myself. God must have been mad at me.” This remark—and burden–is from a 23-year-old survivor. In September, Lymphoma and Leukemia Awareness Month, I hope that we have conversations with cancer patients and survivors and elicit their “why me” questions and beliefs about the cause of their cancer. By listening, we offer a hand that can be as important as a medical treatment.