January 13, 2013

It is likely I have written about this before. Even so, it has been on my mind.

Since being diagnosed with cancer in February 2010, I have been asked if I believe in God[i] more times than perhaps the cumulative whole of the rest of my life. I find my answer to be more complicated than most people have the patience to hear.

I’m not even sure why people ask me. After all, if I say yes, what will they say? “Keep praying”? “Ask for Him to heal you”? or just “Good, good”? And what if I said no? “Well, I  will be praying for you,” followed by that disappointed look that says, ‘poor dear, that’s  why she has cancer.’

The thing is, I don’t think it matters whether I believe or not.

As is periodically made all-too-evident to me, I  am not in control. Perhaps the biggest example of the fact that I am unable to control all aspects of my life would be my original cancer diagnosis. Certainly not  what I would have chosen. To add insult to injury and ensure I learned this lesson (that I can’t control everything), in February 2012 I was diagnosed with metastatic brain cancer (i.e. breast cancer in my brain). Is my lack of control over this matter then proof of God?

I suppose some may see it that way. They would say that my illness is “God’s will”.[ii]

There is yet another line of thinking that would say that I do have control in the matter of my cancer. Specifically, this theory purports that all illness and injury is the manifestation of unresolved emotions. For example, stubbing your toe indicates an unwillingness to move (stubbornness) or step forward (fear). In these circles, cancer is almost always attributed to be the manifestation of withheld anger.

The first problem I have with this theory is that, well, it makes me angry. The second problem is that it is not supported by the facts. Fact is, there are millions of really angry old people in this world that have racked up many cancer-free years and likely still have many more ahead, which, I’ll admit, also makes me angry. Granted, some of them express their anger, possibly exempting them from affliction. Even so, there are many who aren’t expressing it – instead, they grit their dentures and tell you they are just ducky. Maybe because they are aware of their anger – even though they choose to not express it – maybe this awareness of their anger keeps them cancer free?

So. The questions beg. Am I angry and, if so, do I express it? Sure, I get angry sometimes. After all, how do you think I’ve managed to come within a bubble’s delicate membrane of being fired so many times? Not by withholding it (oh how they wish I would withhold it!) Despite having a few valid reasons to harbor feelings of anger (including, in my opinion, having cancer), it’s just not my style to hold a grudge. So, I not only get angry, but I am aware of it and, while not always immediately, express it. Hmmmm.

Let’s try God again.

Does my belief or failure to believe affect the fact of my cancer?

Based on the fact that Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Wiccans, Atheists, Agnostics and a host of people with all other religious or spiritual designations get cancer, it does not seem that belief or a lack thereof mean diddlysquat.

A dear friend told me the other day, “But Tina, it would help if you asked God to heal you. There are so many people praying for your recovery, but it would mean so much more if you asked.” I replied, “Has God saved every believer that has asked to be saved?” to which she replied, “Of course not, God has a plan for everyone and he calls some of them home.” (To her credit, she did not say they were “lucky”.)


If God exists, He is immaterial to my outcome. His script/plan was set into motion at the beginning of time and even He cannot rewrite the ending.[iii] The plot is too thick and we are all too invested in the continuity of the story. If my character was written to die of cancer and then didn’t, it would alter the outcome of too many others – Jack might not become the researcher that cures cancer, Gabe might not become the author of legislation prohibiting pharmaceutical companies from withholding new, life-saving – but unprofitable – drugs, Larry might not become the non-profit entrepreneur that moves and rehabs houses slated for demolition to community-donated property to be lived in by families in need. The list could go on and on. I suppose that if God exists, I had just better hope that my character was written to survive cancer.

On the other hand, if God does not exist then I see two possibilities: as previously examined and dismissed as unlikely, the cancer and all my stubbed toes are my fault or, it is a seemingly random stroke of fate.

You probably noticed my insertion of the word “seemingly”. This is where I tell you what I believe.

I believe there is something we learn and something we teach in every action/event and relationship we take part in and observe and that none of our learning or teaching is random or without consequence. In fact, I believe that without our own conscious awareness, we seek  these events and engage others to mete out the lesson.[iv] How many abusive men does it take before a woman finally understands that she never deserved to be treated that way and that every boyfriend or husband doesn’t have to be just like her father? I believe that this is our only purpose in life: to teach and learn from one another in order to become better than we would have been otherwise. Taking this view allows me to regret nothing and instead embrace all of the events and relationships of my life to date – even the most painful – with gratitude. To do less would be to disenfranchise part of my self (yes, two words), for what am I but the cumulative embodiment of every life event and every relationship that I have known? Coincidence is not.

This being the case, the existence or non-existence of God does not matter to me. Were someone to definitively prove or disprove His existence tomorrow, it would not change who I am or how I behave in this world. I do the things I do, say the things I say and feel the things I feel with no consideration for whether God exists or not. I do what I can best determine to be right for the sake of right. This is not to say that I think all religion is a crock. Quite the opposite. I am thankful for the many that do what I also believe is the right thing[v] out of fear of God’s retribution or in the belief that God will reward them. I believe that religion and belief serve an important purpose for many and that more often than not, we benefit from the kindnesses they may do to curry favor with God. Me? The good deeds I do are done for your benefit because it pleases me. If God exists and they please Him as well, great. If He doesn’t exist, I am still pleased with myself.

So. I accept that my “fate” is to fight this disease to the best ability of me and those around me. If I live, we will have all taught and learned from one another. If I die, we will have all taught and learned from one another as well. Either way, we will have fulfilled our purpose.

[i] Throughout, I capitalize God, He, Him and His not because I fear His wrath should I not, but because I don’t wish to alienate those that might not being able to hear me were I to do otherwise. For similar reasons, but mostly for readability, I have ascribed to convention and assigned the male gender to God.

[ii] As an aside, telling me that my cancer is “God’s will” is probably the fastest way to get me to say “Fuck you and your God.” Was it “God’s will” that your nephew was blown to unrecognizable bits in Afghanistan? Was it “God’s will” that 20 children and six adults were gunned down in Connecticut? If so, I really don’t like your God.

[iii] It’s the classic time machine conundrum (so very well resolved in the movie Looper). You can’t change the path of the present (or past if you’ve traveled back in time) without affecting the path of the future.

[iv] This does not mean that I believe I sought out having cancer per se. Nevertheless, I believe I have cancer so I and those around me can teach and learn some very important lessons.

[v] Keeping in mind that not everyone’s ‘do the right thing’ is the same as mine or yours. As evidenced on 9/11/2001, ‘doing the right thing’ for the hijackers meant killing thousands of innocent people.