Trauma or teacher? How childhood abuse affects cancer

This is me when I was around 7 years old. Behind the pigtails and tights, there was trauma.

This is me when I was around 7 years old. Behind the pigtails and tights, there was trauma.

Last year, I had the honor of being interviewed by Angela Schaefers, a remarkable, fellow  stage IV survivor; for her radio show Your Story Matters. Angela, a former counselor and career coach, created the radio show to share her and other’s stories of overcoming challenges from cancer to domestic abuse and addiction.

One of her questions struck me as particularly insightful:  Were there events in my childhood that attributed to my perseverance as I heal from cancer?

This past weekend, I did a presentation at my spiritual center, and for the first time, I included aspects about my abusive and dysfunctional childhood. I’ve read a lot about how past traumas can often contribute to having cancer. It was the first question a naturopath asked me, who said there always seems to be a traumatic incident before a diagnosis.

Researchers at the University of Toronto confirmed that physical abuse as a child increases your risk of cancer in adulthood by 49 percent — regardless of whether or not you smoke, drink alcohol, or are physically active. The study’s lead researcher speculated that chronic stress in childhood elevates levels of the hormone cortisol, which can hinder the immune system’s ability to fight cancer.

I certainly fit the bill. My childhood was a stressful mess. When I was very young, my family moved to another city and left me in the care of a relative for four years. She loved me dearly, but had a prescription drug addiction which led her to physically abuse me.

My mother was a prescription drug addict, my father and oldest brother suffered from bipolar disorder, and my other brother dealt with the situation with getting in trouble with drugs. When I was eight, my father attempted suicide. From then on, I was delegated to the duty of taking care of my mother, who was bedridden from her escalating disease.

So it seems I can blame my family for having cancer? No, as Angela’s question infers, I can thank my circumstances for making me who I am today. Something deep inside me, which I believe was God, helped me survive those situations. And later in life, it helped me thrive.

I have spent years healing from my childhood with therapy and 12-step groups. During that time, I have learned to love myself and to seek happiness from within. And I’ve learned that some of my liabilities from the past actually served as benefits when I was diagnosed.

My overdeveloped sense of responsibility helped me take action to find new pathways to healing and support. I was able to transfer my perseverance needed to overcome my childhood to my new challenge of stage IV cancer. My sense of empathy and desire to help others now enhances my life today as I connect with other cancer survivors. These attributes are some of those I found in the survivors I interviewed for From Incurable to Incredible.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I don’t lend much credence to statistics.  Just because you’ve had a traumatic childhood doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get cancer. But I do think it helps to look at our lives and how we respond to it. Do we blame our past or use our experience as a way to strengthen us? The choice is ours.

Tami Boehmer is a metastatic breast cancer survivor, speaker, blogger and author of From Incurable to Incredible: Cancer Survivors Who Beat the Odds. You can visit her at

This blog does not reflect the opinions of The Pink Fund, its Founder, Board of Directors, Advisors or Volunteers. It is not meant to serve as medical advise of any kind. Any questions about your health or treatment plan should be directed to a licensed physician or therapist. Any opinions expressed are solely those of the writer who voluntarily blogs for The Pink Fund without compensation.


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