Does bullying increase the risk of cancer?

Jul 8, 2014
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The recent alumni magazine from my grammar school carried some devastating news: two of my previous classmates are battling cancer. My parents’ expat move had me leave that grade school over 25 years ago, and with a few exceptions, I haven’t really maintained contact with those classmates. I hadn’t even thought about these two individuals, a girl and a boy, who have grown up now with their own families and are fighting for their lives.

However, I immediately recognized their names when I read the class notes. The only thing I can remember about these two individuals is that each bullied me in front of our classmates, in two unrelated incidents. The memories of each incident have come flooding back; the circumstances seem ridiculously trivial now, but I can recall vividly the humiliation I felt at the time. I was a bit of a late-bloomer socially back then and was not one of the popular kids. Since I sucked slightly less at music than at sports, my primary extracurricular activity was band rather than athletics.

It’s amazing how the perspective that comes with age reveals the meaninglessness of the hatred I had once felt toward these two people as a small boy based on such limited interaction. Now I wish each of them in total sincerity the strength to overcome their own respective experiences of being bullied, not in a trivial way like I was, but in a matter of life and death.

I also treat sad news like this as another of life’s little reminders of the importance of valuing what we have, starting with the basics like good health, family, shelter, sustenance. It’s easy for us in the ruthlessly fast-paced startup community to get caught up in the excitement of disruption and innovation, and measure our progress in metrics like Likes, or Friends, or Followers, or Valuations.

As far as I know, no scientific research has demonstrated that bullying can increase cancer risk. The correlation of the two that I witnessed from back as a schoolboy is purely anecdotal. However, that does not excuse the act of bullying.

In our aggressive, competitively cut-throat high-tech sector, we are confronted with numerous opportunities for bullying. We’re in a sector where it’s easy to become a patent troll, a comment troll, or an overzealous entrepreneur who sets a high bar and pushes employees hard when they don’t keep up. Let’s keep in mind the collective stakeholders that comprise the richness of our community. Startup founders, CEOs, and the VCs that back them should take a moment every now and then to express their appreciation for these stakeholders. Sometimes the stick is more necessary than the carrot, but over the long-term, most people are better motivated by the carrot.