a woman walking on an AML cancer ribbon dressed as a detective, inspecting footprints

Coincidence or Cause? Wondering About Stressors and AML Diagnosis

Last updated: April 2021

The month after my father died, in 2002, my boyfriend of four years left me for his childhood sweetheart. The next year, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

The year after my mother died, in 2006, I relapsed.

Did the death of my father, and the disappearing boyfriend on top of it, play a role in my initial diagnosis? And did the death of my mother have anything to do with my relapse?

I have often wondered.

Stress and cancer

A friend who teaches biology, who knew Chris, told me about a theory that some major stressors, if not exactly the cause of cancer, can trigger it if you already have a weakness in your system. I thought of it like a proverbial accident waiting to happen.

I wondered if it had anything to do with my father dying and then Chris leaving me. She said it was an intriguing question.

I posed the question to my children.

“No, Chris did not give you leukemia,” one of them said.

The American Cancer Society backs this up, stating on its website, “Although stress can cause a number of physical health problems, the evidence that it can cause cancer is weak. Some studies have indicated a link between various psychological factors and an increased risk of developing cancer, but others have not.”1

It is, of course, natural to want to search for answers.

Searching for answers

The first question I asked my doctor was, “How did I get it?” and he said that unless I lived in Love Canal, the upstate New York community built on a toxic dump site, there wouldn’t be any way to know how I got it. According to the American Cancer Society, most DNA changes related to AML are acquired, rather than inherited. Some may result from outside causes, such as the one my doctor suggested, but in most cases, the reason is unclear.

It was even more mysterious to me because I did not have any of the known risk factors, such as age. I was young – 48 – and AML is most commonly diagnosed among people between the ages of 65 and 74.2

A friend really wanted me to look into a possible benzene connection. I worked in a newspaper office as a reporter, and benzene was used in inks and ink solvents. Exposure to benzene is a known risk factor for getting AML.3

Was it the newsroom?

My friend bugged me to ask my doctor until I finally did it. He said that unless I had bathed in a vat of benzene, that wouldn’t have been the cause. In other words, I wasn’t directly exposed to it. But who knows what else I was exposed to?

The newsroom was not a clean place. Piles of newspapers on some reporters’ desks were so tall you could barely see over them. But it was my dream job, and once I got in, in 1979, I wasn’t going to quit just because a black dust rained down on our desks and covered them on many a morning. Some people thought it was a waste of time to clean it up. Sometimes our deadlines were so tight that we didn’t have time. I did it when I could. A co-worker sent a sample to a university laboratory. The results said it was harmless.

The Annals of Occupational Hygiene doesn’t offer much comfort, stating, “Workers in printing industries may be exposed to potentially hazardous levels of solvents, inks, adhesives, organic and inorganic pigments, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, acrylates, lead, paper dust, and noise.”4

One thing, at least, is clear. It probably wasn't the noise.

But while I may not know the cause, I’m certain of one thing on AML World Awareness Day. I’m grateful for all the researchers and caregivers (and of course for the stem cell donors) who made it possible for people like me to live to see another day.

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