Don’t Look Back with Cancer


Bob Riter
Bob Riter

It is easy to second guess yourself when you have cancer. It can take many forms:

  • I wouldn’t have cancer if I had taken better care of myself.
  • I should have gone to the doctor sooner.
  • I should have chosen Treatment B instead of Treatment A.
  • I should have gone to a different hospital.
  • I should have chosen “watchful waiting” instead of aggressive treatment.

Nearly everyone with cancer wonders if they would be better off had they made different decisions somewhere along the line.

Most of us would have led healthier lives had we known that cancer was looming in our futures. But there’s no guarantee that it would have made any difference. Many cancers occur seemingly at random, even to those who have led the healthiest of lifestyles.

Treatment decisions have to be made at a specific point in time based on the information that’s available and your sense of what is best for you. That’s the best that we can do.

If your treatment caused problems, you’re likely to compare it to an idealized version of other treatment options, but those treatments may have caused similar or even worse problems.

Our knowledge is constantly evolving. When I had my mastectomy for breast cancer in 1996, I had an axillary node dissection in which several of the lymph nodes under my arm were removed. Had I been diagnosed a year later, I would have had a less invasive procedure known as a sentinel lymph node dissection in which fewer lymph nodes are removed. The treatment you received will always be replaced by better treatments.

We also evolve as individuals. The priorities we had ten years ago aren’t necessarily the priorities we have today. Making a different decision today doesn’t mean that a decision made in the past was incorrect.

It’s also important to focus your energies on where they can make a difference. You may be able to reduce your risk of a cancer recurrence by what you do today and tomorrow. You can’t change the past.

Everyone with cancer wonders “what if…?” from time to time, but don’t ask yourself that question too often. We need to let go and move forward.

Excerpted with permission from When Your Life is Touched By Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care by Bob Riter, copyright (c) 2013, Hunter House Inc., Publishers.