When my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer, a year and a half after he had been treated for prostate cancer, he asked his doctor whether the two cancers were related and what was the reason for his illness? The doctor answered that it was an extreme case of bad luck. Five months later he died, and then I started hearing comments from different people about my husband’s role in his dreadful destiny. They never explicitly said that it was his own fault that he died, but implied that perhaps it had something to do with his unhappy childhood, (or with me). Often they inquired whether he smoked, disliked his job, didn’t exercise or ate junk food.
The people who either shared those speculations with me or asked questions about my husband’s life style and emotional being, must have thought that finding the reason for his illness would help me come to terms with my loss. It didn’t.
Those idle thoughts were especially hurtful when they were expressed by people in leadership positions. Once, in order to deal better with my sorrow I attended a weekend retreat with a venerated Israeli guru. The purpose of the workshop was to help us find our inner happiness. The leader gave several presentations and in one of them he suggested that unhappiness caused cancer. I could no longer keep quiet and argued that it wasn’t necessarily true. I noticed that the leader was offended by my words, he was only trying to motivate us to be happier.
But I knew that I was right, that there was nothing in my husband’s biography, in his emotional and physical state of mind to indicate that he would die from cancer at the age of 55. He was happy with his family, loved his job as a professor at a leading university, was well respected by his colleagues and students. On a scale of happiness from one to five, he was a steady 4. He exercised, ate well, didn’t take unnecessary risks, never smoked or had other bad habits.
Calamities happen to people for no reason and cancer is no different. I was relieved to see the New York Times article from January 5th “Cancer’s Random Assault” by Denise Grady which reports: “It may sound flippant to say that many cases of cancer are caused by bad luck, but that is what two scientists suggested in an article published last week in the journal Science. The bad luck comes in the form of random genetic mistakes, or mutations, that happen when healthy cells divide.”
“Bad luck” may not sound like a medical opinion, but that day, almost eight years ago, when I looked at my husband’s face as he was talking to his doctor, it was clear that he understood exactly what the doctor meant and it made him feel better. He was relieved that it wasn’t anything that he had done or could have done differently.
Cancer is not about poetic justice, it could strike anyone at any moment. So what is the medical term for bad luck?