A Reminder: ‘Stop Blaming the Victim’

A young friend of mine has been through two bouts of cancer. One day she revealed how discouraging it is that even smart, educated people are continually warning her off one food or drink or another, or telling her what she should be doing differently to stave off another bout with cancer.

She revealed this week that the worst belief she’s encountered is that cancer was God’s punishment for her sins.

I shared with her an article by Clair R. Ferrar, Ph. D“Stop Blaming the Victim,” that I’ve saved for more than  20 years. After re-reading it again, I wondered if the article could be published in anewscafe.com, because the attitudes and media slant on this disease have not changed in those 20 years.

It took several months to track down Dr. Claire R. Ferrar, who was a professor and coordinator for the Applied Anthropology Program at California State University at Chico. She has now retired.

When I talked to her on the phone she gave me an enthusiastic approval to have her article reprinted. She said that the article was used by an AIDS advocacy group in New York City several years ago. Claire is now in her late 70s and has survived four bouts of cancer.

Here, with Dr. Ferrar’s permission, is her article, first published in the January 1989 issue of “Cope Magazine”.

Stop Blaming the Victim

By Clair R. Ferrar, Ph. D

I am a person who has had cancer and who is very angry at the spate of media attention to various positions and inadequately designed or understood research which blames cancer on its recipients.

Stop blaming the victim has become my personal battle cry.

Last year at age 50, I was diagnosed as having breast cancer. One erstwhile “friend” suggested that perhaps now I’d learn how to handle stress. That kind of statement alone is stressful. Of course, stress can exacerbate any condition. But I am neither no more or less stressed than is anyone who is a university professor in a publish-or-perish situation.

The likes of Dr. Bernie Siegel, with the love-thyself pop philosophy, are of no help, either. If anything, I can be accused of hubris and conceit rather than lack of self-acceptance. It was not a lack of acceptance of myself or my station in life – with both of which I am content – that caused cancer to manifest in me.

Nor will I accept so-called scientific research conducted with questionnaires on a partial nursing population. Questionnaires, as any social scientist will attest, are an acutely unreliable method of conducting research, since people report what they think the researcher wishes to learn (with alarming frequency) or stretch the truth rather than report with total accuracy.

Now California is promoting eating five servings of fruit and/or vegetables a day to avoid various cancers. While there are advantages in proper nutrition and general health benefits from fresh food I shudder to think of the numbers of people who will feel deficient when, despite eating specific foods and avoiding others, they develop cancer. They will undoubtedly be accused of neglecting to ingest food properly and thus be held responsible for their own illness. Well-meaning people – including dietitians and those who write articles promoting this or that fad in magazines – will again point the accusing finger.

Look at my own history with regard to popular notions of cancer-causing behavior, particularly regarding breast cancer.

  1. Cancer incidence is positively correlated with fat intake. I am allergic to both milk and milk products and have been since birth. I was one of the first babies raised on soybean milk. I have never had a high fat diet, since I am also allergic to other usual fat oil sources such as nuts and seeds. I have always eaten a lot of fruits and vegetables, often raw, and I have always limited my intake of meats.
  2. Cancer incidence is positively correlated with alcohol. I have never abused alcohol, and while I do enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, it is not an everyday occurrence. I rarely consume hard liquor.
  3. Cancer incidence is positively correlated with stress. (What disease isn’t?) My stress level, if one can judge from blood pressure, is low. I am a productive scholar and an excellent teacher (hubris again, I suspect) who thoroughly enjoys her work.
  4. Cancer incidence is positively correlated with genetics. I do have blood relatives who have died from cancer, both on my father’s side of the family. No one in my mother’s family has or has had cancer, save me. My sister and I share the same parents. Why did I get cancer and she not? This is an especially appropriate question. Since my sister is not allergic to milk or milk products and has throughout her life consumed vastly more meat and fats than I have. I also have always been more athletic, which leads me to…
  5. Cancer incidence is negatively correlated with physical activity. As a young woman I taught dance and was an active performer. I also was a competitive roller skater. I skied, walked and swam, as I still do. I’ve never been a couch potato rolling around in my own lard.

In sum, I’ve done all the right things and none of the wrong ones and still had cancer. And I do not appreciate anyone, whether a lay person or one with initials after the name telling me if only I’d done X or Y, or eaten this instead of that, I’d not have had cancer. It is demonstrable untrue in many cases as well as my own.

Let us realize that when research is reported in the popular press, it is usually simplified in the mistaken assumption that the general public cannot absorb complicated material. That fallacy, which teachers such as myself daily demonstrate is untrue, leads to the pop theories and fads we have all seen. Unicausual theories of any disease set as varied as is cancer are unsatisfactory.

Cancers are complicated, and while each of us should do what we can to eat properly, exercise and reduce stress, those actions alone will not guarantee that one will not be struck by cancer.

Whatever our own philosophy or belief, let us stop blaming the victims of any disease.

By Clair R. Ferrar, Ph. D, published in Cope Magazine, January 1989

Article reprinted with permission from the author. 

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