As a cancer-having agnostic, there is a funny bit of verbal annoyance that I have come across.
In case you didn’t know, as an agnostic, I don’t prescribe to any official religion, nor do I feel particularly strongly that there is or is not a God and/or afterlife. While I lean towards there not being a God (at least not a presence described in most religious texts), as agnostic, the line I come down on is simply: I don’t know. I have no idea.
But, for example, I don’t pray. I don’t go to church. I don’t believe, necessarily, in the power of prayer, exactly.
However, I can’t even count how many people have told me that they had me in their thoughts and prayers. And I’m extremely grateful to each and every person that has done so, whether or not they’ve actually told me.
Isn’t that kind of strange? Hypocritical, even?
I don’t really have an answer. Shocking, I know, that an agnostic would think about a spiritual issue, shrug, and say “Hell if I know”. But I think that the way my brain is wired, I’m just appreciative that people care enough to express concern and desire for me to get better.
And truthfully, there really isn’t much that anyone can do for me. My family keeps our kitchen stocked with foods I like. The shows I watch are generally available either on cable, hulu, netflix, or somewhere else online. I already own the video games I want to play. Realistically, the only thing that people can do is to recommend books that they’ve enjoyed lately, or recipes for new and exciting foods that I can cook.
Unless you’re Chef Lenny from one of the country clubs we deal with. Then you make house-made pasta and send it home for me with my Dad. Because you’re just awesome like that.
But not everyone (myself included) can make fresh pasta, and so positive hopes, vibes, and prayers are about the extent of it. And while I just don’t know if prayer does anything, I can’t help but be grateful and thankful that people desire my recovery enough to think of me in such a personal moment. I really don’t know how I could possibly repay all of the good vibes that I’ve gotten, both from long time friends, friends I haven’t spoken to in ages, family members, and strangers.
And here’s another potentially hypocritical point: If you told me I could go back in time, and re-do my transplant, only, without everyone praying for me, I absolutely wouldn’t.
Now…you could say that’s because the transplant process was basically the 48 worst consecutive days in entire life (a life that includes concussions, mono, ligament tears, shoulder separations, multiple occurrences of bronchitis, and all kinds of other minor injuries that I’ve managed to give myself). But that’s not what I mean – I mean, that if I could remain where I’m at right now, but have had nobody praying for me during my transplant, I absolutely wouldn’t change it.
Personally, I rationalize this because I think that living things are more connected than we’re aware of. How, why, and how much we’re connected, I have no idea. But I fully believe that positive energy and good thoughts can help good outcomes occur.
At the same time, though, I have to acknowledge the very real fact that many, many, many cancer patients don’t make it. In fact, fully 25% of people that get a transplant, die. Fully 75% of people in need of a transplant die before a match can be found for them. And I refuse to believe that these people that didn’t make it, didn’t have just as many people praying for their recovery, hoping things would go well. I don’t believe for a second that more than a passing few of these cancer patients ever “gave up”. And I highly doubt that any of these fallen warriors did anything but what all of us have done – listened to their doctors, tried their best to stay positive, and generally just hope for good things to happen.
It’s not like you can do 100 push ups a day and suddenly, you’ll be cancer free. You just have to have faith in your medical team that they know what they’re doing, that they’re giving you the right stuff, and most importantly, that your cancer responds to it.
So for me, while I am grateful to the point of tears for all of the love and support I’ve gotten, it’s become a bit of a pet peeve when people suggest that “keeping positive is half the battle”, or any of the other metaphors associated with beating cancer. Another popular one being that you imagine your whole body as soldiers, and that the cancer is an invading army, and somehow, this visualization helps your body recover.
If it was that simple, do you think anybody would ever die of cancer?
The truth is, cancer is horrible. We don’t know nearly as much about the genetics, mechanisms, or drug interactions as we’d like. Partly because our cancer medical history is so short. Partly because I think doctors are finding out just how different 2 of the “same” cancers can be, depending on the genetics of the individuals that have them. Partly because I think a fairly high percentage of patients choose not to participate in research studies tied to their disease (I don’t have numbers on that, though). I just know that when my doctors asked my permission to get extra bone marrow every time they do a biopsy, so that it can be submitted and stored in an (anonymous) research lab, my parents didn’t want me to do it, but I immediately said yes. Same for blood draws. Same for post-transplant phone call questionnaires. Same for the packaged sheet of questions I got at day 100, and will get after 6 months, after a year, 2 years, and 5 years. I hope that someday, my results, marrow, and blood samples can help find better, more effective, and less horrendous ways to deal with leukemia.
So the next time you talk to a cancer patient, try not to insinuate that if they don’t stay positive, that they will lose their battle. Express your concern, your sadness, your hope for their recovery. Those are all wonderful things to hear. However, everybody has their own coping mechanisms. And sometimes, they involve not being bright and cheery and happy. Sometimes it involves letting yourself feel sorry for your situation. Because god dammit, cancer really sucks sometimes.
But the truth of cancer is that not all of us make it. The truth is, sometimes it comes back. The truth is, there is a part of my brain that, for the rest of my life, will be a little bit afraid whenever I’m feeling under the weather like I did pre-diagnosis. The truth is, I will live the rest of my (hopefully) long life with the fear that it could come back, or that if I have kids, that I could pass on the genetic mutations that I had that caused the leukemia in the first place.
And the real truth is, that none of us, ever, want the cancer to win.