I couldn’t avoid it forever – cancer meets religion

I was hanging out in The Living Room in the Macmillan Centre a couple of months ago, waiting for my clinic appointment when I got chatting to a guy who was likewise wasting time like I was.

I’m not sure why we got talking, but we did. It’s not an uncommon occurrence in the Living Room.

He asked me what my cancer was and I filled him in. I also said I’d had surgery on my face, which he might have guessed from my swollen face, toothless grin and dodgy speech. ‘No, not at all!’ He said. I was surprised to think I was at a point where people didn’t notice. I mean we weren’t sitting close and he probably wasn’t scrutinising my face but still! I felt like it was big for me!

He has CLL – Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia. It sounds like a ticking time bomb. Absolute insanity. It’s funny, we discussed how my specific type of cancer suits me – my treatment might have been excessive, full-on, but it was always moving. Busy.

We discussed religion for a bit – he, the man who writes books about religion, me the staunch athiest.

I said I didn’t understand how you could keep believing in God after a cancer diagnosis. I mean sure, I get that people want to think there’s a higher power that will save them, that there’s a greater plan. For me, I trust in my doctors and surgeons, but his type of cancer is slow moving and they have a ‘wait and see’ approach (I don’t know how I would survive that, he’s amazing! But because of him as a person, not necessarily for his beliefs). So I understand a need for something that reassures you it’ll be ok. That you’re not alone (again for me, I get that from all you lovely people, not from a belief).

I said I didn’t understand how you could keep believing in God when you also believe that He’s given you cancer. That He thinks it’s what you deserve.

My new friend explained to me that he doesn’t see it that way. That the world is broken and God isn’t orchestrating everything, but He can help to turn it around. To make sense out of the senseless, to give you hope when you feel like you’ve lost everything.

That makes more sense to me. Though once again I’m amused at how differently religion can be interpreted to fit whatever you want. Though for the first time instead of seeing this as a criticism, it seems quite clever. I suppose music can be the same – different people can take different meaning from songs. It’s kind of like horoscopes – they work because WE apply meaning to ourselves.

And once again I’m reminded of MY purpose, of what means the most to me: People. All of you! You’re everything. YOU give me meaning.

He mentioned that being religious was about finding purpose in the world and that some people are happy to live without finding purpose and meaning.

I smiled, nodded and dismissed it. But thinking back, I don’t dismiss it. Not being religious doesn’t mean you don’t think about the ‘meaning of life’ or about your purpose, it just means you don’t take to thinking there’s a big man in the sky to explain everything. Way back in the day everyone was religious because that’s just how it was. As the philosophers, thinkers and scientists came out, they started to struggle marrying religion with the logic and truths they found out about the world. Now, we know to think of more meaning outside of the easy answer of religion.

But then again I suppose keeping faith in religion isn’t necessarily easy, especially with the things life throws at you.

He gave me a new way to think about religion in light of a cancer diagnosis. Though I’m not sure everyone has the same pragmatic view of it that he does, that the world is broken.

I don’t like to think the world is broken, I think it’s perfect. People are amazing, times are hard, sure. Really shit things happen all over the place. But have you seen the sun shine? Have you seen a stranger smile at you? Have you had a friend call to see if you’re ok? Have you ever had someone care? Even a little bit? These are your every day miracles. And its PEOPLE who are responsible for those perfect moments!

I have learnt a lot from this experience though. Before this I probably would have followed that last paragraph with something about religious people thinking that God made people be nice, that it wasn’t actually them. I think I was jaded by my great aunt when I was young who, at the end of a Christmas lunch my parents put on, would say ‘it was such a lovely day because I asked God for it to be’. She didn’t mean offence by it, but it offended me. It was a lovely day because of the people who made it so. My blood still boils thinking about it. She also thought God was concerned with making sure there was sun on the day she wanted or that I got into university (firstly God has bigger things to worry about, secondly it’s ME that got me into uni! Ugh).

I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of life and reading a lot about it of late. I’ve actually said this in a previous post and I will say it again – I have come up with these two things. It is our ability to choose how we react to situations. This is our humanity. We can have everything taken away from us except our ability to choose how to react to it. And it is our legacy. The things we did in our lives that affected people, the people we knew, the people we loved.

When I was writing this originally, I was talking to my parents about it. About the religion thing. I think it was my dad who said ‘There are ways of explaining everything, it all depends on how you want to look at it. It’s a non provable, non winnable argument. Just comes down to the person and what gets you through the day’. Trudat.

So I’m posting this, months after I started writing it, months after our meeting. Mainly because I was thinking about my friend, our conversation and how he is going. I liked him and I hope he’s well. If you’re reading this my friend, I hope you haven’t taken offence to anything I’ve said. I’ve tried to approach it pragmatically and write about how you changed my understanding of religion in light of cancer diagnosis. We will agree to disagree on this matter in general, but I think you are amazing and I hope you are doing ok.

4 thoughts on “I couldn’t avoid it forever – cancer meets religion

  1. Sally Kling

    An incredibly wise analysis for one so young! Big hugs from the Northern Beaches although we have never met. Hope to one day soon. Sally 🙂 (Mum & Dad’s Trivia friend)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!!! I’m just lucky I’ve had the ‘cancer perspective’ 😂 in all seriousness, it has probably made a difference though. I know of you well! And the hugs from the Beaches mean a lot. xx

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  2. I dont know where to begin.
    Everytime I go into a church I feel the need to pray, any denomination it doesn’t matter. My prayer for want of a better word, is usually the same.I pray for the health of all my family and friends,all life on earth and for the earth itself.
    But mostly I give thanks for all the incredible blessings I have had, and continue to have in my life.I pray to God, but really it is the Spirit of goodness that I mean, I always say that G stands for Good, and try to do good wherever I can I believe that God is a construct of mankind.

    Your illness is the worst experience I have had to share, I know it has had a profound effect on you, your parents, and us your extended family and many many friends.Your attitude fortitude,and sheer grit, has helped you endure and make sense of it, not only for yourself , but for us all.

    You have come through this hopefully your darkest hour, and back into the light. Great spirit of goodness shine on my Jen, let her healing be complete soon, and keep her safe and well for evermore.

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    1. I get you. I hope for things in the world to get better sure, but I think it’s up to us to try and make it so, not just to think those things. Not that it’s always easy to do so, and the bystander effect is indeed strong.
      I don’t like to think faith in anything will heal me, that’s very hit-and-miss. I 100% believe that it is my doctors and my body, etc. that will do so. And if it doesn’t, it’s not because of any lack of good in the world, or any failure on anyone’s part, it’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
      But it’s for everyone to believe in whatever gets them through the day, and anyone thinking good thoughts are brilliant.
      I think maybe I should be more concerned with things outside of my sphere of influence and hope for goodness more, but I’m a doer so I just try to stick to things I can control and help with and try not to engage too much with anything else.

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