Why Ask What

The clapping echoed through the long cavernous hallway.  No shouting, no hollering, just thunderous clapping.  Another wave.  Trying to find room 111b in the Philadelphia Convention Center I was reminded of Nicolas Cage in the movie National Treasure searching for the next clue.  There it was again.  Then the pink shirts, pink scarves, and caps.  The line was long, the excitement contagious.  Hundreds of women dressed in pink, walking, cheering.  Oh, yes – it was the first day of the Susan G. Komen 3-day Walk for the Cure.  Nationwide hundreds of thousands of women walking in support of someone they knew who had breast cancer.  Raising money for the cause.  Doing their part to help, or honor, a loved with a horrible disease.

I wondered how many of these walkers had ever stopped to ask the question, “What caused her breast cancer?” It is a natural question to ask.  What caused my Mom and sister’s breast cancer? What caused the breast cancer in five of my girlfriends and two of their mothers?

I once asked my husband’s physician what caused his lymphoma. Even though I knew it was not a question that could be answered about him specifically, I asked anyway.  Maybe it’s the epidemiologist in me, but I truly wanted to hear her thoughts.  Engage in a conversation.  After all, my husband was young, 39 years old when diagnosed with what used to be considered “an old man’s cancer.”  What I did not expect was her response, “We’ll never know and it doesn’t really matter. We need to focus on treatment to get him better.”   It became evident rather quickly it was not her job to ponder the possibilities of what caused his cancer; it was her job to make sure he received the best care possible and to watch over his safety through the treatments.   For that I was grateful.

As I approached the lady’s in pink, the words “it doesn’t really matter” from the physician a decade ago were as loud to me now as the walker’s thunderous clapping.  It dawned on me that with cancer we have stopped asking why and what.  We have settled in a very dangerous space – the acceptance of the disease as part of our lives. The common belief now is that cancer is conquerable, even curable.  The rock star cancer patient we see on billboards and in magazines denies or at least downplays the suffering that comes with the disease and in doing so makes it easier to avoid thinking too intensely about the causes.

But what if we never asked why a plane crashed or why clusters of people were getting food poisoning?  What if we just focused on treating those who survived the crash or the contaminated food without looking for and addressing the causes? Planes would keep crashing for the same reason and people would continue to get sick from eating the contaminated food.  So why do we seemingly, so readily, not insist on answers to the tough question, “what caused her cancer?”

What if each one of these persons walking for the cure insisted on finding out the answer to what caused their loved one’s breast cancer?  What if collectively we were not willing to accept “we’ll never know so it doesn’t matter” for an answer? I know what would happen.  We would force the medical community, scientists, government, politicians, non-profit organizations, industry, and the media to more openly and honestly engage in a dialog about the causes of cancer and, in turn, we would be in a stronger position to find the real treasure – prevention.

Copyright © 2012 Jeannie Moloo. All Rights Reserved.


Jeannie Gazzaniga Moloo PhD, MS, RDN cared for her late physician husband through 12 years of blood cancer treatments, including a stem cell transplant, while raising their three young children. She is an award winning registered dietitian nutritionist and former owner of a clinical nutrition practice where she advised clients on healthy eating to manage heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and gastrointestinal conditions. She is a Ph.D. in epidemiology, with an emphasis in preventive medicine and environmental health. For nine years, she was a national media spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics providing sound, science-based nutrition advice to media, consumers, industry, and researchers. She has been quoted in several publications including the LA Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, and Parents Magazine, and appeared on ABCNews, CBSNews, NBCNews, NPR, and KYGO-FM.

Reader Interactions


  1. Diane Husic says

    You ask raise such an important question — “What caused the cancer?” There is so much press coverage about the “race for the cure”, so much effort into fundraising efforts. Yet we invest little effort, money, and attention toward finding the causes and the preventions. We likely can never prevent all cancer due to our exposure to UV rays and genetic glitches, but many forms have environmental carcinogen links that we could do something about. I guess it is the same with respect to preventative health care in general.

    I had a major scare recently, going to the doctor for one reason with resulting tests showing an abnormal mass. A biopsy and long wait (well, it seemed long) for the results were terrifying experiences for me, but fortunately, I heard the word “benign” at the end of that wait. So many things raced through my mind during that wait, including “How would Sandra want me to write about this?” :*)

    Having worked briefly in a chemical carcinogenesis lab, with people who were trying to find the reasons why, I can say that these are people whose efforts often go unheralded, although their egos don’t seem to suffer from that! Your husband’s physician was wrong in her answer.

    I admire your strength and think of you and your family often.

    • Jeannie says

      Well said Diane! Happy to hear benign, sorry to hear you went through it. So many scientists who have dedicated their careers to finding causes of cancer and much chemical science showing potential cause. We need to force the issues of why and what so that this science gets a fair shot at being heard, understood and appreciated for its value.

  2. Cancer Curmudgeon says

    Thank you! Let us return to asking what causes cancer…ALL cancers, and yes I know the answers will be different for every type of cancer. One hopes that learning the cause can lead to real prevention.

  3. Roberta Anding says

    Just as I would expect: a thought provoking blog. I have asked what caused my cancer? Chemicals in the lab in grad school, an environmental toxin? Something in the food? Knowing what can help us discover the how-how to prevent and treat

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