An Atheist’s Perspective on Cancer

When the new gods and the old meet to battle in Neil Gaiman’s book, American Gods, one new god appears as a tumour with scalpels sticking out of it. It seems uncanny to suggest that a tumour belongs in a pantheon of new deities but, we do tend to treat tumours, and the cancer they represent, as gods or demons; cancer is either a journey, a blessing, and a gift or something hellish to battle as soldiers.

Cancer isn’t a journey, blessing, gift or battle. It is a serious illness that requires the attention of both experts (technicians, doctors, nurses, researchers) and friends (supporters, advocates). It may help some people to take on the positive battle language, but the downside is the people who lose the battle or can’t see it as a blessing feel that their disease is their fault for not having more cancer appropriate thoughts!

In mid November, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I found the lump, by chance, at the end of October. I had a partial mastectomy (aka lumpectomy) and sentinel node biopsy in mid December. Last week I got back the pathology report which showed the best outcome I could have hoped for: a cancer that is stage 1, grade 1 (i.e.: slow moving with no lymph node involvement) and a tumour that is estrogen and progesterone positive (something that is highly treatable with hormone therapy).

I’m praying for you

I had many prayers from all different faiths. I have no problem with people praying for me as it is more a comfort for them than it is an intervention for me, but I feel stressed when a believer, who knows I am an atheist, tells me this; it feels like the believer doesn’t respect me for who I am. In most cases, believers are just trying to say they are thinking of me and hope things turn out okay but, some take illness as a an opportunity to subtly evangelize. Pray if you want, but just tell the atheist you care for her and are there for her. If you want to know what to say to someone with a serious illness, take a look at Lisa Adams’s suggestions. She has Stage IV breast cancer and she has been dealing with her illness for quite some time. I really like this part:

Don’t tell them that their science-based treatments are bunk and what they really need to be doing is just changing their diet, breathing pure oxygen, or relieving their constipation to be cured of cancer.

Which brings me to the next thing I heard a lot.

So and so Cured Her Cancer By (insert bullshit here)

If you are an atheist, you may also embrace science and reason, so addressing the various woo thrown your way can really drain you. One example is Suzanne Somers and how she said no to chemotherapy and embraced an alternative solution that cured her! Guess what! Suzanne Somers had the same cancer I have and she decided to have a lumpectomy, and radiation but to skip chemotherapy because it only gave her a small survival advantage. Her alternative treatment contributed nothing to her cancer free status and it was the conventional treatment (lumpectomy, radiation) that saved her. How many people with more aggressive or more widely spread cancers has Suzanne Somers inadvertently killed? For a detailed take down of Suzanne Somers’s claims see here and here.

Related to the alternative medicine phenomenon is the other lefty fallacy also known as, those studies you read are probably wrong because they’re financed by big pharma! This forces the ailing atheist to explain how peer review works, how various scientists attempt to reproduce the experiments to see if they get the same results, how the results are discredited if they don’t, how you can tell a good study from a bad one and how the researchers must declare their biases. This is how we know, for example, that Stanislaw Burzynski’s alternative treatments are bunk. Depending on the atheist, constant educating can be draining. I actually didn’t mind too much if the person on the other end genuinely listened, but it would become too much to handle if I had to do this over and over.

Positive Attitude

As I alluded to in the beginning of this post, an attitude about cancer has turned into what Barbara Ehrenreich calls the fetishization of breast cancer in her book, Bright-sided. You will recognize the key words and phrases: kick cancer’s ass, survivor, fighter, battle. Sorry to say but, a pugnacious personality has nothing to do with a patient’s prognosis. It’s mostly luck (catching the cancer early) and science (surgery, adjuvant therapy). Besides, what does this say of all the thousands of people who die of cancer each year? That they didn’t have the right attitude? That it was all their fault? Again, this is where dualism is dangerous. You aren’t a being slumped behind tired eyes; your brain and body are one organism. One ailing organism. You can’t think yourself well! In fact, it’s probably better to acknowledge your feelings and surround yourself with people who support you; it certainly made all the difference for me.

It’s great if people find something positive in their dastardly disease, but cancer doesn’t have some universal cryptic meaning and no one gives it to you so you can uncover some life lesson (and if your deity did he’s probably a psychopath). Often, when it isn’t the result of something obviously environmental: smoking, breathing in asbestos, ingesting radium, it happens for reasons that can’t easily be explained; maybe a cosmic ray hit you at the wrong time or you just had some really weird cellular mitosis.

Take a look at Lisa Adams’s post about the stupid things people say to those with cancer. I can relate to these ones in particular:

“Live in the moment.” “Be strong.” “Fight hard.” “Keep your chin up.” “Don’t give up.” “Attitude is everything.”
“We just need a miracle for you.”
“If anyone can beat this, you can.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“It’s all part of a larger plan.”
“You’re only given what you can handle.”
“All you need to do is think positive.”
“Half the battle is the mindset. Be determined to beat cancer and you will.”

Although the long waits between pathology results were excruciating, I got lucky: I found the tumour in its early stages, I live in a wealthy country where access to medical care is very good and I had a good surgeon. Radiation and other adjuvant therapies are not going to be easy, but things certainly could have been much, much worse. No deity saved or cursed me and the support of friends and family, not a fighting attitude, got me through the tougher times.

WordPress theme: Kippis 1.15