A sad man with his head in his hands, question marks floating around him

The "Why Me?"Question

Last updated: November 2022

Why me? I think that’s a question that anyone who gets diagnosed with blood cancer, or really any cancer, asks themselves at some point. Multiple points, more likely, in fact, it takes up space, rent-free, in your brain like a New York City grandma in a rent-controlled apartment. It just never seems to leave, and why should it? The mental anguish caused by this one simple question can be enough to sink your entire ship. Metaphorical ship. You don’t have to worry if you live on a houseboat. Just sayin’.

Shocked by the cancer diagnosis

I don’t think anyone who has cancer is going to sit there and tell you that they weren’t rocked to their core when they first got their diagnosis. It’s a scary word to hear, especially when it’s directed at you. Like a gun to the head in Russian Roulette, that first mention of the c-word conjures up all kinds of emotions, feelings, and mental consternation and you feel like you happened to spin the chamber with the bullet in it and you have no choice but to pull the trigger. So, it’s natural that your brain would eventually pop its head in and ask, “why me?”

Not your fault

You may not know this but there is a small minority out there who thinks that people who get cancer and other diseases somehow brought it on themselves with bad behavior, or some sort of moral failing or a lack of faith, but personally I don’t believe that’s true. After the way I partied in my twenties, if it were even 1% accurate, I’d have seventeen different kinds of cancer with a case of Leprosy thrown in on top just for good measure.

Instead, I just got the one – lymphoma, more likely due to the years of inflammation and other symptoms caused by my ongoing rheumatoid arthritis. Still, imagine if cancer really was caused by bad behavior? Instead of saying “we’re gonna party like a rock star tonight!” the saying would be “we’re gonna party until our hemoglobin hits zero!!”

The question can't be answered

The fact of the matter is that “why me?” as much as you ask it to no one in particular, isn’t something that would be helpful even if you did have an answer. If you said, “doc, why me?” and he said, “because you drank too many Snapples on July 4th last year at that BBQ,” what would you say? Would it substantially change your life? Would you stop going to BBQs or drinking Snapple? Well, maybe you’d toss the Snapple (it’s gone downhill anyway), but realistically it wouldn’t have much of an impact on your immediate future or treatment of your illness.

It would still be the same chemo protocol, and you’d probably still drink iced tea. Heck, I bet if you were really thirsty and there was nothing else around you wouldn’t even stop drinking Snapple. (So sorry Snapple, I know you are getting a real beating here, don’t take it personal.) As natural as it is for your brain to ask this question, it’s almost as unnatural to follow it to its logical end and realize that having an answer wouldn’t really do you any substantial good anyway.

Cancer caused by free radicals

So, let’s try to figure out an answer. Ha, ha. If we are talking actual, physical, causes, well, cancer is caused mainly by free-radicals. These are DNA-destroying molecules that enter your body when you do, well, basically anything fun – eat fat, have sugar, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, go to the beach, do…  well, you get the idea. Many of the things we like to do also help create these dangerous compounds, and if the right free radical happens to damage the exact wrong part of DNA, then voila, you have cancer. It’s actually a pretty well understood phenomenon.

Metaphysical answers are elusive

Now, if you are asking “why me” in the metaphysical sense, well, that’s an entirely different story. Better philosophers than me have pondered that question for a long time with a varying amount of success. Me? I tend to think everything happens for a reason, and the older I get the more I believe it.

You may not be able to see the reason for a while after but most times I think you can look back and say, “well if it wasn’t for this, I wouldn’t have ended up here.” Like for me, if it wasn’t for my cancer diagnosis I wouldn’t be here, with the privilege of using my experiences to help others cope and process the things that we all go through. You’ll have to make your own call as to what the ethereal reason is for your diagnosis, but whether you believe in some force bigger than yourself or just plan old happenstance, it might help to decide which.

“Why me?” “Why do I get cancer when serial killers die at 90 in jail?” “Why did the nicest person we all knew die young of cancer and the ornery, s-o-b, grumpy, mean, jerk we all know just ran his fifth triathlon?” I don’t know, but we all go through questions like that when we get a cancer diagnosis. It’s a normal part of grieving your old life, and hopefully this helps to give you at least a guide on how to start to process this totally typical step in coming to terms with your cancer diagnosis. Talk soon.

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