The Ethical Dilemma: A Person Told Me My Cancer Is My Fault! Should He Apologize?

Joan Reisman-Brill offers advice to someone who was infuriated after a non-cancer treatment doctor said cancer is the individual’s fault.

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Is Religious Garb A Right? I just read about a Sikh man who was arrested for refusing to remove his turban. I’ve also heard about laws prohibiting women from wearing the veils that obscure their faces, or requiring their removal for ID photos such as a driver’s license. Although I believe in freedom of expression, including religious expression, I also see that these things can conflict with security concerns, such as a gun hidden in a turban, the inability to identify a woman wearing a face- and body-obscuring veil (and the possibility that it’s actually a woman—or man—strapped with explosives). How do we ethically determine when these things should and shouldn’t be tolerated?

—Veiled Threats

Dear Veiled,

This is the kind of dilemma where the answer is in the eye of the beholder and can become explosive when opposing parties don’t see eye to eye. Certainly the observant Sikh man feels obligated to wear his turban at all times as a proclamation of his faith. And the U.S. Constitution protects everyone’s religious freedom. But in the U.S., it has also been customary for men to remove their hats as a gesture of respect, particularly in courtrooms. What if instead of a turban, a man in a ski mask claimed to follow a religion mandating ski masks in public? Should he be required to remove it or permitted to wear it?

Similarly, various sects (not just Muslim) require women to be covered up to varying degrees for reasons of modesty and respect. Requiring these women to do without their veils or long skirts would be equivalent to a society that mandated women display their cleavage in public or for ID photos. Most American women would consider such a demand to be a humiliating violation of their rights, even if it were the norm in another culture.

Unfortunately, it seems that the more people dress and act (such as kneeling in prayer in the workplace) to proclaim their religious convictions, the more others want to force them to conform to local or historical norms. It would be one thing if there were long-standing laws specifically banning turbans along with all other forms of headgear in courtrooms, or explicitly requiring the removal of veils for ID photos or in public. Then people would have to accept that if they wanted to function in a society that enforced those laws, they would have to abide by them—or go through the proper channels to appeal. It’s much more subjective when these issues come up on a case-by-case basis, with different reactions and expectations in different settings.

Although security is a legitimate concern, it’s not a solid argument. It’s just as easy to conceal a weapon in a Baby Bjorn or baggy pants, or to obscure one’s identity with a hoodie or mask or make-up, regardless of what appears on the photo ID. Our country’s over-riding priority (thank you, First Amendment) is protecting every individual’s right to freedom of religion, as long as that isn’t impinging on other freedoms or rights. Humanists—many of whom exercised their freedom to embrace humanism after years of freely practicing other beliefs—support that basic human right. The turban and the veil belong in the picture.


Self-Inflicted Cancer: I am a member of group that includes a man with a Ph.D. in biochemistry who likes to give everyone nutritional counseling. He’s not licensed in the field so he can’t do it for money, but he says he loves to help people. Since he joined the group, he has talked several members with various health problems into extremely strict diet and nutritional supplement regimens that sound dangerous to me.

In the course of a casual conversation about a friend who is battling cancer, he asserted that she gave herself cancer. Horrified, I informed him that I myself am a survivor of stage 3 breast cancer and I’m involved in a number of cutting-edge research studies, and asked if he really thinks I too am responsible for having cancer. He said yes! I told him (rather emphatically) he didn’t know what he was talking about. I really don’t care to speak to him ever again unless he apologizes.

—A Gift I’d Never Give Anyone

Dear Gift,

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. This man no doubt means well and believes he does know what he’s talking about—and at least he wasn’t claiming these illnesses were divine retribution. But even people with advanced degrees in oncology don’t know everything about what causes (or cures) cancer, and this guy, who is not a physician nor a nutritionist nor a cancer specialist, probably knows even less.

Christopher Hitchens acknowledged that the cancer that killed him was exactly what was expected from his hard drinking and hard living (not to mention—as many did—his very vocal atheism). But don’t we all know people with supposedly deadly habits who seem to escape any consequences, while others who do all the “right” things succumb to disease? Although certain cancers are clearly linked to certain causes, there are plenty of exceptions. Most cancers arise from myriad complex dynamics, of which diet and nutrition may be only a minor component, if any. Other causes may include genetic, environmental and other factors you couldn’t possibly control yourself, either to develop disease or to fend it off, even if you had perfect wisdom regarding causes and prevention.

Everyone has to use his or her own judgment about whose counsel to accept or reject. You made it clear to your colleague—and probably to others within earshot—that you don’t buy his expertise in this situation. Caveat emptor applies even when the advice is free (and worth every penny). But now it’s probably healthier for you to just let this go, no apology (from either of you) necessary.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City and certified Humanist Celebrant. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.