Cancer, Atheism, and Living

This week my step-dad told me his thirty year old daughter was losing a year-long struggle with cancer. Despite many treatments the cancer had grown, and not much time was left. She had a community of people who had been rooting for her, the school she taught at, the FFA club she helped lead, her church, her husband, her toddler son. None of it mattered to the cancer, who kept on steadily invading her flesh. They don’t know how much time she has left. It won’t be enough.

I never met my maternal grandmother. When my mom was 16, her mother died of cancer. Her loss will always echo through the hearts in our family. Even though I never met her, I was named for her. Every Valentine’s day I would call my mom to talk about her and offer my love, because that was the day my grandmother passed away. If I’ve learned anything from the adults in my life, you never get over the death of your mother.

Every time another case of cancer comes out, it’s among acquaintances, people separated from me by a degree. I feel like every year is just a year closer to when I will get the awful news that somebody near and dear to me has cancer. Or that I will get cancer. It lurks in the shadows, never far. It’s too common a disease that comes in many variations. I’m thirty myself and everyone around me continues to age, continues to grow in risk of death.

This year I watched Breaking Bad and read The Fault in Our Stars, both of which dealt with cancer in very raw ways. I learned a lot more about the various issues people struggle through, the horribleness of chemotherapy, the helplessness of the people around who cannot do anything to stop it no matter how hard they desire. But worse of all is the death. Death hangs over the whole process, never leaving anyone’s thoughts.

WARNING: Personal thoughts follow. These are my reflections on my own religious experience. They are not my reflections on your religious experience. I expect every person feels a bit different on these heavy subjects. I am allowed to have my own thoughts and feelings about how Christianity deals with the doctrine of suffering, just like you are allowed to have yours. Any statements regarding Christianity deal with the doctrines of the particular Christianity I was raised in, and are not meant to be all-encompassing of everything called Christianity. So if it doesn’t match up with yours, no need to call me on it. I know different churches  and people believe different things.

Being an atheist has changed how I look at suffering and death. Since I don’t have the idea of all-powerful cosmic force at play in life events, the idea of death as a result of our bodies breaking down and stopping makes sense. But the part of me that had the faith in God for well over a decade still reacts a bit with a sense of unfairness. Now it’s more against the idea of religion than against God personally (one can’t have personal strife with somebody one doesn’t think exists). Thoughts of cancer bring up thoughts of many other terrible sufferings on our earth. When I was a Christian I explained the dilemma of a good God allowing the suffering of the innocent with an all-encompassing ‘He has a plan to make it all right, a much better solution is coming, this is essential to some greater good.’ However, in my deconversion process, examining this logically fell flat on its face. In the absence of evidence for an afterlife or a second earth, there is no good outcome that can justify the horrors that the innocent suffer on earth. My wonder now is how I maintained faith in somebody who watches innocent, even faithful children wither away and die, despite having the power to stop the suffering with the smallest exertion of his power. Reflecting, I think I largely ignored that aspect. That was easy to do in a life without direct exposure to that kind of suffering. I cannot call anything like that good, and if anybody in my life ever did that to somebody I loved, I would hate them and cut them out of my life. I would warn people against them.  It disgusts me that if I still was a Christian and I got cancer, people’s advice would be to thank God for his blessings, that he would make me better through the cancer, that his ways were mysterious and this was part of his perfect plan. They would tell me that I should seek peace in God, who according to the all-powerful and all-knowing doctrine, would be completely responsible for causing my suffering. They could cook up some serious psychobabble and spiritbabble to sway my emotions towards a place where Jesus could be standing there with a hammer, beating my skull with it, and I would thank him for his kind ministries.

On the other hand, I cannot really fault people who cling desperately to their religion when faced with terrible suffering. There is so much pain that sucks the life of people. If they really face something so awful and unconquerable, then why not go to their beliefs, adapting them to help them cope with the terrible misery of the situation? If you are desperate for comfort, and the idea of God is the only thing that comforts you, then I’d be an asshole to mock your belief or steer you away from that. Even without cancer or death, some people’s daily lives have so much strife, depression, anger, or fear that they teeter precariously on the brink of giving up. If faith in God helps somebody make it through that, then let them have that faith. So if you’re reading this and you have faith, no, I don’t think you are stupid or foolish for using your faith to get through terrible things. I don’t respect you less for it. It is probably the best thing for you to do. It’s just not something I could do personally.

Why would I say that, as an atheist? Because I really think when we die, we’re finished. There’s no ‘other side’ to offer peace or punishment or anything. How we experience this life is it. I am all for helping everybody have the life with the least suffering and most happiness they can. It would be naive of me to leave religion out of that equation. While I fully acknowledge the problems religion causes in people’s lives and in our American culture, I also fully recognize that many people, especially some of my loved ones, use religion as a very positive force in their lives. They use it as a motivator to do good deeds, a force of community, a place to put hope in times of trouble, and a force of accountability when wrongdoings happen.

This is America, where the vast majority of the population has some form of the Christian religion. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Thus my adaption of the live-and-let-live mindset. I see life and culture as something bigger than my thoughts, your thoughts, your religion, my lack of religion. There is enough suffering and problems to work out that we all need to work on. I believe we can do that together, despite having different ideas. Things like cancer, suffering, and death affect all of us despite what we think about deities and the afterlife. Even not-so-desperate things like our laws, economy, weather, and culture effect us all as well.

When pondering my own mortality, I find it very healthy and normal to weigh death very heavily. I will die some day, and everyone I know will die. That is awful. It would be awful even if I did believe in God. There will be lots of suffering. There is no reason to think that people of faith suffer more or less than people without. It’s the same with great joy and peace. People with and without faith encounter that as well, with no statistical differences. Where I’ve landed on this personally is that I know for sure I’m alive now, and there’s no way to tell how much longer I will be alive. I aim to cram my life full of stuff I would look back on my deathbed with satisfaction on. I get one shot at life. So does everyone else around me. We all affect each other, so it makes sense to live life making more of a positive difference in the lives of others than a negative difference. When I make a positive difference among others, their joy and happiness increases mine. I feel satisfaction in that, so I know when I am looking back on my deathbed, I will have peace with that.

In regards to cancer specifically, I know I can do a few things to boost my chances of avoiding it or healing from it: eating healthier, exercising more, regular health care and screenings. None of those has the power to completely prevent it. Nobody else in my life has the power to prevent it.  Nobody has ultimate control over if I die from cancer or if I recover. Cancer may claim my life someday. Even if cancer doesn’t get me, something else will. That’s very sobering, and leads to thoughts like this when I watch people deal with life-consuming illnesses.

I also will continue to support scientific advancement and knowledge. Our bodies are physical things. The more we learn about the body and what effects it, the more we find cures/preventions for diseases and ways to prolong the life and happiness of people. Our own lifespans have been prolonged due to all the work people have done before us to advance knowledge and technology. The terrific thing about living in an advanced society is that technology plows ahead to find solutions to real life problems. The more we can encourage other people to adapt a scientific mindset to pursue or support scientific advances, the closer we get to helping humanity conquer real problems like cancer and other things that cause great suffering on our planet. This isn’t a solution to deal with the people who are dying and suffering now. But it is a hope for a future. It encourages me to follow scientific pages and observe the people who keep learning and finding solutions.

Will any of my ideals matter when I am dying myself? I don’t know. I have limited experiences, thus this being an idea post rather than an experience post. I don’t think it’s healthy to put strict rules on how people deal with grief because everybody is so different. What’s effective and healthy for one person could be wrong for another. However, as people suffer around me, I cannot avoid thinking and feeling about it.

We all walk around with invisible baggage.  The major events in our lives leave us with emotional impacts. Depending on what has happened in their lives and what mental health care a person has received, the bags are a variety of sizes and weights. If things go smoothly we can ignore our baggage, for the most part. But when something trips us up, that baggage pulls us in various directions, spilling out over our lives once again. Everyone has baggage. Due to its invisibility we have no idea what baggage anybody else is really carrying. We may even forget about our own until the big emotions start pouring out of you during a trigger moment. Let’s be kind to each other.

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