After Diagnosis: A Guide for Patients and Families

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What is cancer?

Who gets cancer?

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 are found in people older than 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 most cases, many people come up with their own ideas about why they have it.

Some people believe they’re 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 it.

If you’re having these thoughts, you’re not alone. They are common among people with cancer. But cancer isn’t a punishment for things you did or didn’t do. Don’t blame yourself. It’s painful, and it rarely helps. It’s almost never possible to know exactly what caused the cancer. Focus instead on taking good care of yourself now – both your body and your mind.

Did I cause my cancer?

We don’t yet know what causes all cancers. We do know that there are certain things called “risk factors” that affect your chance of getting some diseases.

Some risk factors for cancer 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 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, doesn’t mean that you’ll get cancer. 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 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 didn’t inherit it, nor do they pass it on to their children.

Last Medical Review: 02/20/2015
Last Revised: 02/20/2015