The Blame Game and Difficult Diagnoses

This morning on Good Morning America, a story was told about a gentleman in England who last year was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told he would live only a few months. His reaction was to go out and spend all his money — literally — until he learned recently that, in fact, he had been misdiagnosed and didn’t have cancer at all. Now he’s suing the hospital that misdiagnosed him to get back the money he spent. He blames the hospital, and while I think suing is an extreme, I certainly can’t blame him for being upset!

Then I picked up a story in today’s New York Times written by Alice Lesh Kelly which tells about her reaction to her breast cancer diagnosis. In pursuit of “why me?” she spent the time between surgeries, chemo and radiation researching everything she could, hoping to figure out why she had developed breast cancer at all. With no family history, and at her young age (41) it made no sense to her. She was looking for a place to lay blame by trying to figure out the medical/chemical/biological answer to the question.

Then Alice met another woman who had, instead, simply given in to her ovarian cancer diagnosis and was doing what she could to take care of herself, physically, emotionally and mentally. That woman had made peace with her diagnosis by just appreciating the time she had left. She wasn’t looking for a place to lay blame at all, or perhaps her initial blame time had been short lived.

Somehow it seems that human nature drives us to place blame. The blame game is part of almost everyone’s diagnosis story when that diagnosis is for a fatal disease or a lifetime condition. In the case of well-known family history, the blame is easily laid on genes. In the case of an accident or some easily identifiable reason, then blame can be laid there. But when we hear a fatal or lifelong diagnosis and can’t pinpoint its foundation, we, as human beings, seem to default to that “why me?”

Studies have been done about people’s attitudes and their medical outcomes. I’ve heard stories of people who just give in to their diagnoses, dwell on the negative, and don’t live very long. I’ve also heard stories of people who get diagnosed with a fatal disease, then fight it with every fiber of their being — and live much longer than ever anticipated.

And my own story has its own version of the blame game. At the time of my own cancer misdiagnosis, I reacted like Alice Lesh Kelly described in her NY Times story — I did all the research I could to try to figure out what to do about my rare lymphoma. Once I learned I had been misdiagnosed, I spent months in anger, laying blame on the pathologists who had misdiagnosed me based on their errant reading of my biopsy.

And today? Today I blame differently, and for many, far more positively. (Hmmm…. is it OK to use the words “blame” and “positively” in the same sentence? :-)?) Today I blame my belief in “everything happens for a reason.” And today I channel my efforts toward helping others get beyond blame, so they can learn to advocate for themselves instead.

As sharp patients, we need to learn how to channel our energy and efforts toward positive outcomes. Removing the negativity, and focusing on healing and helping, is far more healthy for our minds, and can reap benefits for our bodies.

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Trisha Torrey
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