An Atheist’s Perspective on Cancer

by | January 14, 2015

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.

29 thoughts on “An Atheist’s Perspective on Cancer

  1. Ben Goren

    Very well put.

    The positive attitude stuff can help you keep going, but only if you acknowledge the full reality of the situation. It’s okay, even good, to fool yourself sometimes, but only if you’re honest with yourself that that’s what you’re doing.

    And if you can make lemonade with life’s lemons, fantastic. Always better to salvage as much as possible. But even better to avoid all the chaos and destruction in the first place. Otherwise, we’d all go around burning our own homes down or hacking our own limbs off or what-not. Hey, great way to give yourself some real adversity to overcome, right? So you can rise to your true potential and all?


    And the reason we don’t do that to each other, either, is the same reason why, if gods did it to us, they’d be our enemies.


  2. Indi

    I lost my mother to cancer a couple years ago, but luckily she didn’t have to deal with any of that patronizing crap you mention in the post. She was diagnosed Tuesday afternoon, and had an aneurysm around 2 AM Friday morning. I didn’t even know she had cancer yet when my father woke me in a panic and asked me for help – she was probably going to break the news to my siblings and I on the weekend, because I had a final exam Friday morning. She “lived” on machine support for another few days – just long enough for my brothers and sisters to gather from around the world – then that was it.

    She was a nonbeliever, of course – I was raised atheist – but my father told me that in the very short time she had between getting the diagnosis, which was terminal – she was told she had weeks or months – they discussed her impending death. Apparently, she told him that she almost wished she could be a believer, because that kind of fuzzy comfort sounded appealing. There was no deathbed conversion, though; she lived strong, free, and clear-minded, and she died strong, free, and clear-minded, just sadly sooner than she expected.

    So I never had the experience, even secondhand, of facing the crap you described. Instead, my family faced an entirely different barrage of crap. There was the expected “she’s in a better place” bullshit (you have no idea how many times I restrained myself from snapping back that “the best fucking place she could possibly be is with the people she loved and who loved her you fucking asshole”), and the “everything happens for a reason/there’s a larger plan” shit, and the really fucking smarmy attempts to convince my father, my siblings, and I to go to church to “find peace” or “comfort”. (We didn’t even have a church funeral; we had a party at the funeral home.)

    But there was also a lot of what what you call the “fetishization” of suffering. Several people talked up her “courage” in “battling” cancer, which was particularly bizarre given the actual circumstances… her “battle” was all of 60-odd hours, none of which actually involved any treatment (it was apparently mostly talking with my father, making preparations – I’m not sure when her next appointment would have been). I can’t imagine she would have responded well to all that “keep your chin up crap” (likely she would smiled and thanked the person graciously, but the moment they left she would have raised her fist and said “I’ll keep *your* chin up”).

    It’s really nice to hear some nonreligious perspective on these things. Thanks for sharing, and I wish you luck in your treatment.

    1. Diana MacPherson

      Thanks Indi. A family friend witnessed his mother’s death recently and she was in a lot of pain. When a religious relative got up at the funeral to say “God took her peacefully” he didn’t snap immediately but had harsh words outside the room about how she didn’t go peacefully at all. If I recall the story correctly, he also told him off for his preaching.

  3. Heather Hastie

    Fantastic piece Diana! My younger sister had a mastectomy following a diagnosis of cancer, and recently had her other breast removed as a precaution. She had to deal with a lot of the same nutty comments you did that just cause stress at a time you can do without it.

    I’m pleased everything is going well for you so far – long may it continue!

    If you want to escape the winter and the stupid comments, e-mail me – I have a spare room. 🙂

        1. Diana MacPherson

          Ha ha, no. I’m the one who joked that I had my passport up-to-date before.

  4. Diane G.

    Brava, Diana! Excellent essay!

    Some of the “don’t says” are so enmeshed in society that I even hear myself muttering them now & then, to my great consternation; but I always strive for the rational and compassionate responses. Religion has been so embedded for so long that it’s going to be a struggle to evict its terminology.

    I think the absolute worst would-be advisers are the “cancer is a gift/blessing/lesson” crowd. Puke! (And attention everyone: it’s nothing new that a brush with death changes one’s world-view (at least temporarily). That story’s been written.

    1. Diana MacPherson

      Yeah, as i thought of what could be the worst diagnosis (knowing my death wouldn’t be immediate given what I did know from the biopsy), I didn’t regret my life and I had no interest in travel etc. but I think the word that best described how I felt, would be “disappointed”. It was a bummer to have to get off the ride so soon.

      1. Diane G.

        I’ve thought about it too during health scares (none of which turned out as nasty as yours) and I agree; disappointed. In my case I’d have to admit to some regrets as well, but even thinking about that did not make me jump off the gurney and get working on them.

        I did think I’d have an excellent excuse to avoid housework for a while, though.

  5. Diane G.

    “It was a bummer to have to get off the ride so soon.”

    Love that.

  6. Iwona

    I was diagnosed with stage IIa/DCIS (grade 2) breast cancer on the left/right sides. I’m an atheist and I also think that many of my friends are trying to push me on the “right side” using my sickness as an excuse. I am an optimistic and I feel great without the faith. I don’t need to pray to survive. I believe in science and modern medicine. But I would like to be able to find a group of people (women) that are going through the same problems and are not constantly talking about praying and Jesus and God.

    1. Karla

      Couldn’t agree more!! I’m stage 2 breast cancer, surgery next week for lumpectomy. I joined the big Facebook breast cancer support group and the most common comment is “I’ll pray for you.” When they were cured, they would say praise God. I would often comment, how about praising your physician. Although I really needed the breast cancer support group, I now left the group because I got so tired of the Christian mentality for surviving this disease. It would be neat to start an Atheist Breast Cancer group on Facebook. What do you think? Make it private and about science and realism.

  7. Diana MacPherson

    Iwona, my radiologist kept pushing that I go to talk to a social worker and I didn’t have a need to do so. I know when I need to talk to someone and I didn’t because I had a good support network and was doing okay. However, I feared of being pushed to someone or some group that would push the Jesus talk and positive attitude crap. I do wish there were an atheist group that would allow women to discuss not only their cancer but also the societal issues they face with “you’re tough, you’ll beat this” and other variations of battle language along with “I’m praying for you”.

    If anyone knows of such a group, please let me know. Perhaps the Humanist groups may know of something or can arrange something. I’ll try to look into it.

    1. Karla

      I just posted that maybe we need a Facebook Atheist breast cancer support group? I am happy to set it up if there is interest? I got very tired of the big BC support group on there with all the praising god and praying for each other. I just wanted to scream hey your god hates you cause you have cancer but if he cures you you will praise him. Geeezzzzzzzz!!!! It would be nice to have a private (members have to ask to join) group for breast cancer survivors that is based in science and reality. Let me know. I’m game if others are. LOVE your article and read it to my man who is atheist too or we would of never made it past first date.

      1. Diana MacPherson

        That sounds like a great idea! I don’t know why I didn’t think of Facebook.

        1. Karla

          OK! I’ll set one up right now and add a link to it! I too want to discuss all the things you talked about. It will be formatted on Facebook so you have to ask to join and I’ll approve you. Just say you are an atheist and I’ll add you. Just want to keep the angry christians off. We don’t have time for them.

  8. Elaine Klotz

    Diana, may I ask what you were prescribed for follow-up therapy?

    1. Diana MacPherson

      I take 20 mg of tamoxifen and I’m still scheduled to see my oncologist, get mammograms, etc.

      1. Elaine Klotz

        That was prescribed for me also but I didn’t take it because of what I read about it. I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place!

        1. Diana MacPherson

          I’ve actually tolerated it pretty well and it reduced my likelihood of recurrence enough that it was worth it for me. Most likely, I will end up using an aromatase inhibitor after menopause but I will take it for 5 years and assess things then.

          The good thing is you can always stop taking it and there are some alternatives if you don’t do well on it.

  9. William Bastow

    Thanks Diane, I can totally relate to your story. I couldn’t agree more! I have been fighting melanoma for the past five years and have been amazed at the number of nurses and medical staff that tell me they will pray for me and, God bless me etc. Then there are all the people that tell me to try their different herbs and remedies because they read something online about it. Most of them mean well, so I don’t let it bother me too much, but I wish they would realize how insensitive they really are.

  10. Jo Frey

    Wow. I am a 4-year survivor of aggressive breast cancer, and a mental health professional. This article affirmed so many of the thoughts/feelings I experienced during my treatment and recovery. I wasn’t the popular cancer survivor wearing pink, asking for prayers and talking about life lessons. That aggravated a lot of people. I am just a person. Cancer was just a rogue organism fighting for life inside my body. I was fortunately on “the right side of science” and am living to tell about it. Thank you for your candid article!!


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