After Diagnosis: A Guide for Patients and Families

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What is cancer?

Who gets cancer?

More than 1.6 million people in the United States get cancer each year. Nearly half of all men and a little more than one-third of all women in the United States will have cancer during their lifetimes.

Cancer can happen at any age; but more than 3 out of every 4 cancers occur in people over the age of 55. People of all racial and ethnic groups can get cancer.

Why me?

The first question that comes up for many people with cancer is, “What did I do wrong?” or “Why me?” Because doctors don’t know for sure what causes cancer in each case, many people come up with their own ideas about why they have the disease.

Some people believe they are being punished for something they did or didn’t do in the past. Most people wonder if they did something to cause the cancer. Some think that if they had done something differently, they could have prevented the disease.

If you are having these feelings, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. All of these thoughts and beliefs are common among people with cancer. But cancer is not a punishment for things you did or didn’t do. Don’t blame yourself or look for ways you might somehow have prevented cancer. Cancer is not your fault, and it’s almost never possible to find out its exact cause. Focus instead on taking good care of yourself now – both your body and your mind.

Did I cause my cancer?

No, you did not. We don’t yet know what causes all cancers. We do know that there are certain things we call risk factors that affect your chance of getting a disease. Some risk factors can be changed and others can’t. Risk factors that can’t be changed include your age, sex, and family history. Things that can be changed are things you do, such as whether you use tobacco or drink alcohol, what you eat, and how much sun exposure you get. Other risk factors are linked to things in the environment that cause cancer.

But risk factors don’t tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even many risk factors, does not mean that you will get the disease. And some people who get cancer may have few or no known risk factors. Even if a person with cancer has a risk factor, it’s often very hard to know what part that risk factor may have had in causing the cancer.

Can cancer be inherited?

Some cancers can run in families, but cancer isn’t passed on from parent to child the same way that height and eye color are. While some cancers do have genetic risk factors, most people with cancer have not inherited it, nor do they pass it on to their children.


Last Medical Review: 03/06/2014
Last Revised: 04/07/2014