Patient Stories - April 21, 2017
Coping with Cancer As a Nonbeliever
I am a nonbeliever who happens to have cancer. Does that mean I deserve to have cancer? No. Does that mean I am not able to cope appropriately with my cancer? No. Religion can be a touchy subject. Cancer, and in my case cervical cancer, is another sensitive issue. So, it may not be comfortable to discuss, but both topics are pieces of my personal story.
I identify myself as a non-believer. This doesn’t mean I am uneducated in religion—quite the opposite. I grew up in the church. However, if I am forced to “classify” myself, I would consider myself agnostic.
A research study published in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences shows a significant correlation between religiosity and spirituality, and the quality of life in patients with life-threatening diseases.1 This study may lead people to think that as a nonbeliever who has cancer, I am at a disadvantage compared with individuals of faith. I have never, however, felt at a disadvantage. In fact, if you ask my family and friends, I am an upbeat, positive, and inspired person.
I never contemplated how my lack of religion affected my cancer battle, until I was directly asked how I coped with all the challenges of cancer without the aid of religion and faith. It never crossed my mind that I should need to turn to a higher power to help me.
Facing Cervical Cancer Without Religion
I was first diagnosed with early-stage cervical cancer in October 2012. I faced the thought of becoming infertile, and I never considered turning to God.
With the exception of a few months, I have been in active treatment for recurrent metastatic cervical cancer since April 2014, when I was diagnosed with my first recurrence.
I have heard the 5 words “I will pray for you” countless times. You may wonder how that feels as a nonbeliever. To be honest, I mentally translate those words into something easier to comprehend, such as, “I will be thinking of you.” This is a phrase I use when someone is ill or has suffered a loss. I am not offended if an individual of faith prays for me.
I have personally had people lay hands and pray on me, and I have received prayer quilts. Who am I to deprive people of something that helps them cope with my cancer diagnosis? I know that my cancer is not all about me; obviously it affects my family, my friends, and others as well.
Living my life as a nonbeliever, I have found that it can be very difficult for my devout family and friends to understand my choice. I have heard things such as, “I wish you were a Christian, so God could help you with your cancer,” and “My pastor would love to baptize you, so you can accept God’s grace.”
In response to such wishes, I always say “thank you for thinking of me.” However, those statements can also take a mental toll. It is difficult to accept that some devout individuals believe that if I would only accept Christ into my life, I would magically be better able to cope with cancer.
Cancer Doesn’t Discriminate
The first time someone told me they wished I was a Christian so that God could help me with my cancer, I was taken aback. I was angry and hurt, and all I could think was, “What, do Christians not get cancer?”
It took me some time to rationalize what this person meant. Of course, I know that individuals of all beliefs get cancer. Cancer does not discriminate.
I try to be open to others’ belief systems, and I hope that others will be open to mine. I find, more often than not, individuals are accepting when they hear that I am not religious. However, it can be very hurtful when the person does not accept me the way I am.
Facing Cancer My Way
I don’t think that I have a difficult time coping with my cancer. I pour my heart into my family, work, and advocacy, to make a difference in the effort to eradicate cervical cancer. I talk about cancer openly with my medical team, family, and friends, and I also share my story publicly.
I write a blog, www.tealelfs.com, about living with cancer; I volunteer with the cervical cancer advocacy organization Cervivor (www.cervivor.org); and I do as much community outreach as possible to spread awareness.
I also deal with my cancer diagnosis by making an effort to live life to its fullest potential. I make it a priority to do things that make me happy, such as spending time with my son and husband. I challenge myself to step outside of my comfort zone. I do many things to cope with my cancer, but I won’t be bowing my head in prayer tonight.
- Atef-vahid MK, et al. Quality of life, religious attitude and cancer coping in a sample of Iranian patients with cancer. Journal of Research in Medical Sciences. 2011;16(7):928-937.