(Because I’m under the influence of steroids today, I got a bit wordy and have broken this down to parts I and II. I will publish part II within the next few days)
I write candidly, and this article will be no different. I will admit that I’ve developed a paranoia about writing here and that is my fault. It is a fear of being defined by cancer; fearing that readers will assume everything I write is about my battle with the disease. It is not, but I will say more about that later. My paranoia, however, has prevented me from publishing articles I’ve written. I counted 38 unpublished articles. But this time, I am writing about cancer. But I’m not writing from a place of self-pity or “crying for help.” I am writing about cancer as a journalist, with profound honestly and emotional vulnerability. I acknowledge that I am not speaking for all cancer sufferers or those who have any serious disease. But I have the feeling that I might be expressing some people’s secret thoughts. You also don’t have to have cancer to feel these things. Any life-changing disease could do it. Heck, the process of aging itself is like cancer in slo-mo. With aging you are dealing with some of the same issues. The loss of vitality and the approaching death.
Hemingway wrote candidly about war, because he could draw from his experience as an ambulance driver in World War I. I am certainly no Hemmingway, but I can draw from my cancer experience, writing as an observer. Hemingway also said, “As a writer, I’m a very sensitive fellow, but I’m also a man, and real men don’t give into their sensitivities. Only sissy-men do that. Therefore, I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and still work?” I’m not a heavy drinker, but he captured the dilemma that I face as a man who is candid with his emotions writing in a society where we men are supposed to present with a stiff upper lip.
In studies, about 30-50% of people in America or the UK fear cancerand as many as 10% have extreme worry about having the diagnosis.1
One study found, “Fears of cancer emanated from a core view of cancer as a vicious, unpredictable, and indestructible enemy, evoking fears about its proximity, the (lack of) strategies to keep it at bay, the personal and social implications of succumbing, and fear of dying from cancer.”2 Another study, which I can’t find today, found that 50% of Americans fear dying from cancer. But once cancer is realized, what is it that cancer patients fear? What is it that all people who develop series diseases fear? I will go through those without any hierarchical order.
The Fear of Being Defined by Cancer
To segue with my preface, there are days that I feel like I’m a big blob of cancer, wearing a “Mike Jones” name tag. Besides my unpublished articles, when I do publish one, I often wake up in the middle of the night regretting publishing it, with the fear that someone might mis-interpret it. I’m sure I will do the same with this one.
I don’t know which is worse, cancer being the elephant in the room where I spend substantial time with old friends and the word “cancer” is taboo, or where it is the only thing talked about. Both situations are troublesome. I was a human before I had cancer. I was a human before I had any social definitions, man, son, father, husband, Christian, PA, or whatever. I’m still a human. I know that others who are reading this, may likewise fear being defined by some bad experience in their life.
I ask big questions about life, theology, ethics, metaphysics, the unknowns of the cosmos, not as a function of having cancer. I have always asked these same questions and written about them. No, I’m not struggling spiritually because I have cancer, not for one second since my diagnosis. But I have always been discontented with the simple answers that society offers for the big questions. Many people didn’t really know me before I had cancer and assume, or I fear they assume, everything I write is a function of the disease’s intrusive entry into my life.
The Fear of Dying
Most people assume that dying is the worst thing that could happen to you if you get cancer. It is not. Suffering, which I will mention later, is worse than death. Becoming extraneous to the world is even worse than suffering. But death does bring its fears.
Having been an evangelical for 30 years, ending in circa. 1990, I know that the “fear of dying” is one of the many unspeakable things in many religious circles. I know growing up in the Bible belt, faith was often measured by how someone approaches their death, by looking forward to “being with Jesus” with that stiff upper lip.
At this juncture, I would have to agree with Marx when he said that religion can be an opium. He meant it in a positive way, of dulling the worst senses in a society that needs their senses deadened. But for me, if I took this approach, smiling and welcoming death with open arms, would mean that I would be profoundly emotionally dishonest with myself and others, and it is not an issue of faith. I feel sorry for all those good Christians who had to pretend they were welcoming death, when on the inside, they were terrified of the process. I spoke to my brother daily leading up to his death last year, yet he could not voice the words of his fear (which I could sense), even when I tried to draw them out of him. I wish I had done a better job helping him to share honestly with me.
My fear of dying isn’t that God or Jesus isn’t there. Simply, no one in our era has gone through death, complete death (not just near-death experiences) and then came back and told us about the journey. It is a great mystery. The unknown.
If I had volunteered to go on a one-way trip to Mars on a Bezos rocket, while I would have some awe about the trip. I would also be afraid about it because it is something I’ve never experienced. Also, it would mean that I would be saying goodbye to Denise, my kids, my grandkids, my friends, my sisters, this universe I love, and everyone, never to see them again, or at least not for a long time. I’m human and within my human nature, I feel grief. When I was first diagnosed in 2019 the doctors didn’t think they could save me. All my kids flew in to say goodbye. The heartache I felt at that moment was a blackhole of grief. Incommunicable.
Growing up in the Bible belt, we were told a mythological story (it does not come from the Bible) that at death we will be immediately transported by angels up into the clouds where we will walk streets of gold and play harps. I know that everyone who comes here is not of the Christian faith, but even if you are, the Bible is very vague about the afterlife. The Bible verse I like the best is Luke 23:42-43, when Jesus said to the thief beside him on the cross “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” I looked up the term for “paradise” once and found that is from a Persian word that means “garden.” I like that. But it is still abstract. This is not about faith. If faith causes me to deny my human nature, then what good is it?
I also like the idea that in the future, God is not going to warehouse our souls in a place called Heaven, but to restore this material cosmos, and put us back here in immortal bodies to live in this garden. That is one of the possible interpretations of the Bible. That is my dream, but it is not my certainty because the Bible does not express certainty on the topic. Certainty is not faith but the devil dampening our curiosities.
I’ve spoken to many atheists about the afterlife. Of course, for an honest atheist, there is no afterlife and all that they were ceases with death and they return to dust. Some of them tell me that causes them no fear, but I don’t get that either. To cease to exist forever would give me some fear and some regret.
I’ve said before, and it is hard to explain here, for me to have a solid faith that God is there, I must entertain the possibility that he does not exist. I will try to explain this again, but please use grace as you try to understand what I’m saying. No, I’m not an agnostic.
If I grew up in a Christian culture that demanded a belief in God, and all my friends held the same ideals, then my belief in God would be a product of social coercion. The “faith” would be a default position, in which I would have no choice. But, when I honestly say, there are reasonable alternatives to believing in God, that the atheists are not all immoral or stupid (the view we had to have when I was an evangelical), then when I chose to believe in God’s existence, it is an act of the will after much thought. To me, that is a healthy faith. But I will rest the argument but to say, what if I were wrong about God’s existence?
Because I do have a great deal of confidence about God being there, I don’t sit around wringing my hands worrying about if there is a God or an afterlife. That thought is like one single fly buzzing around a big barn of thoughts. Insignificant.
The Fear of Suffering
I will try to be brief, because the previous was so long. But this is most likely my greatest fear superseding death itself. It wasn’t before 2019. As a medical provider, I had always assumed that in modern medicine we had the tools to mitigate or eliminate suffering. That is not true. During my worse physical suffering, my medical providers had little to offer to alleviate that suffering. The suffering was also worse than I ever imagined that suffering could be and it was very isolating. No one else could feel it and no one else knew what to say, so they pulled away. Even my doctors. Since then, I’ve had some bad days, but nothing like that. I have friends who are suffering now, and I think about them day and night, fearing for them by proxy. I understand why some people end their lives when there is no hope left and suffering is their bread and water. I seriously considered it at that time. My greatest fear is that a period of intense suffering will visit me again with all its adornments before death.
1 Moser RP, McCaul K, Peters E, Nelson W, Marcus SE. Associations of perceived risk and worry with cancer health‐protective actions: data from the Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS. J Health Psychol. 2007;12:53–65. doi: 10.1177/1359105307071735
2 Psychooncology. 2017 Aug;26(8):1070-1079. doi: 10.1002/pon.4287. Epub 2016 Oct 6.