There are two kinds of people. Those that believe life is fair (everything happens for a reason) and those who don’t (shit happens).
These differing viewpoints may seem like no big deal until you start thinking about the moral implications of belief in a just world. I suppose if everything is working out for you it’s a pretty convenient philosophy. However, if life has thrown you some major curves (such as a diagnosis of terminal cancer) than you probably don’t believe we all get what we deserve.
My own diagnosis of lung cancer left me completely gobsmacked. How on earth did a young, seemingly healthy woman who had never ever touched a cigarette (me) get lung cancer. And yes, I was struck by the unjustness of it all. I mean, why me?
Well, first of all, lung cancer in non and never smokers is nowhere near as uncommon as most people believe. Approximately 60-65% of newly diagnosed cases occur in former or never smokers.
Secondly, life is not fair.
However, most of us grew up believing in a just world, a well ordered place where sensible and good behavior was rewarded and risky or bad behavior duly punished. This viewpoint not only shaped our moral code, it lent us an invisible cloak of safety.
This philosopy is the very reason that those of us with lung cancer are consistently asked as to whether or not we smoked. The asker wants to be reassured that our lung cancer is the direct result of cause and effect. Of course they haven’t stopped to think about how this question will impact us. If the answer is yes, the implication is that we are the agent of our own misfortune. And if it is no, we are reminded once again of our extraordinarily bad luck.
Belief in a just world is the thinking behind the stigma associated with a diagnosis of lung cancer. Stigma is defined as ‘a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person’. In the case of lung cancer, our diagnosis is inextricably linked to shame and a blame the victim mentality.
Which makes us all incredibly sensitive to any suggestion that cancer, and our disease in particular, is almost entirely preventable. ‘Helpless to Prevent Cancer? Actually, Quite a Bit is in Your Control‘ reads the catchy title of a recent article from the New York Times. The author, a professor of pediatrics (and therefore, I think, not an expert on adult cancers) makes statements such as this: ‘… you’d have to be living under a rock not to know that smoking causes lung cancer…’ Or this ‘About 82 percent of women and 78 percent of men who got lung cancer might have prevented it through healthy behaviors.’ The author makes a stab at empathy with this observation: ‘You don’t want to get into situations where you feel as if people don’t deserve help because they didn’t try hard enough to stay healthy’. However, the word deserve and that bit about not trying hard enough harkens right back to shame, shame, shame.
The way in which disease is characterized matters. Talking about lifestyle changes that can optimize health is always a good thing, but it is important to remain sensitive to the language that is used.
Calamity of all sorts and cancer in particular is often beyond our control. Nobody deserves lung cancer, whether they smoked or not. But sometimes, shit just happens.