My aim is to share a brief account of experiencing and surviving cancer from an Atheist perspective. This experience provides a valuable insight into one’s personal philosophy.
In May of 2012 at the age of 32 I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. I sought medical advice when my left testicle had begun to expand until it was nearly the size of an egg. After using ultrasound, the doctor at the walk-in clinic referred me to a hospital for further diagnostics. Within 24 hours of a second ultrasound I was under the knife of an eager urologist intent on removing my left testis and its various attachments. The medical team prepping me for my operation seemed given to gallows humor. During the final fleeting moments of consciousness before the anesthesia took effect, one of the masked, gowned surgeons joked that, if I so wished, they could remove ‘two for the price of one’. My last words before fading into an anesthetized blur were something to the effect of ‘please just take the left one’.
The day after my operation I had to return for a CT scan—a common procedure. It begins with a miserable experience -- having to drink an epic amount of fluid that looks and tastes like soapy dish water. One then lies on a slab as iodine is intravenously pumped into your body. As it begins to circulate it feels as if warm bath water is flowing over your internal organs from groin to thorax. However, the experience was more surreal than unpleasant, and the scan itself was over rather quickly.
Had the above scenario of cancer diagnosis and surgery been part of a movie, the plot would then have paused dramatically to allow the protagonist to process the diagnosis and its implications. In a movie, this would be accompanied by tears and emotionally-wrenching string arrangements. The sufferer would pose existential ‘Why me?’ type questions, and might also turn to a god for strength or guidance. He might even consider the cancer a form of divine punishment. I am proud to say that I did not follow that predictable movie plot. When I learnt my diagnosis, I did not cry, nor did I ask ‘Why me?’. For it seemed just as reasonable to ask ‘Why the fuck not me?’! And religion never entered the equation because I am a lifelong Atheist.
Instead, my response was to interact with my urologist in a logical fashion. I explained that I had once been a smoker; I laid out my diet, lifestyle, and profession in the hope of providing some causal link. The doctor explained that my testicular cancer was the result of nothing more than bad luck. Maybe it’s just my temperament, or perhaps it’s because I don’t believe in some celestial overlord who punishes us according to how bad we have been, but I received this grave news as calmly as possible. Had I been religious I would have had the arduous task of trying to establish god’s motives for inflicting cancer upon me.
This considered approach later allowed me to begin reading about my cancer, about post-operative procedures and about the overall prognosis.
It never occurred to me that having a testicle removed would be so painful. Don’t misunderstand, I did expect some pain, but nothing to the extent experienced. The pain extended from my left pubic region where an incision of several inches had been made, to the midpoint of my left thigh. The pain was unremitting for two weeks. If I neglected to take my Oxycodone at the prescribed intervals I found myself in a steadily intensifying, unbearable measure of pain.
Soon after the scan I was informed that the cancer was aggressive and had spread to the lymph nodes in my chest cavity. This serious development meant that chemotherapy was almost inevitable. Despite this turn of events, I never doubted that I would confront it like any other challenge. I didn’t look to some higher being or external force for strength or wisdom; my entire life up until that moment had given me everything I needed in order to face whatever might come my way. The real challenge lay with the fact that my son was about three months old at the time and I had been married for less than a year. I was concerned that I would not be able to focus all of my energy on being a totally enamoured first-time parent.
The knowledge that I will die one day does neither saddens nor scares me. I’m entirely baffled by people who are so fearful of death that they opt to believe in a blatant falsehood. Many people want to believe that good deeds beget rewards, that bad deeds result in punishment, and that regret and apologies result in forgiveness and mercy. Unfortunately, that’s just not how the world works. In my mind the religious are incapable of coming to terms with the nature of the world where much of life is absurd and random and has little to do with concepts like fairness or justice. The only explanation I can advance for a belief in god and an afterlife is that it relates in some way to a need for justice and order.
After much deliberation, my urological oncologist decided that I should indeed proceed with chemotherapy. This of course was decided after they had tattooed me for radiation treatment. In case you’re not part of the cancer club, technicians first locate the intended radiation area and then mark it with tatoo ink by puncturing your flesh with what looks like a thumb tack. It was not clear to me why this permanent scarring of my body with green ink was chosen above simply correctly aligning the scanner.
I endured four cycles of a platinum-based chemotherapy treatment using a drug called Cisplatin. The movies would have you believe that one vomits constantly, loses appetite and wastes away to a skinny shadow of one’s former self. If only that were the case! In contrast, my particular treatment made me gain weight. In addition, I gradually lost my sense of taste, and was left with persistent nausea. I was also weakened to the point that I could scarcely move or even carry my newborn son.
The true challenge of chemotherapy is to endure the gruelling routine. For five days in a row, during four to five hours each session, I had toxic liquid infused into my cowering veins. Nothing was scarier than waiting to discover who my nurse would be, because they’re not all the same. While some were expert caregivers and highly professional, others required many attempts to thread my vein with the butterfly needle. I don’t care how tough you are or what you’ve been through in life, it’s a trial to survive cancer treatment because everything about it forces you to counter your natural impulses. You don’t really feel sick from cancer until you receive treatment for it. In chemotherapy, you extend your arm to a stranger and allow them to root around until they locate and puncture a viable vein—when every morsel of your being is telling you to slap that motherfucker and to take back your extended arm.
Apart from the physical trials of cancer treatment, I also had to endure Christians who in my weakened state informed me that despite knowing I didn’t believe in god, they would pray for me all the same. Even in my weakest, sickest moments these bastards insisted on rubbing my nose in their beliefs. As the weak sick guy, I just thanked them for their concern. I should not have done this.
If a religious person was sincerely praying for me, they wouldn’t have to tell me about it. Yet those people who were praying for me insisted on telling me about it. A good deed remains good whether committed privately or publicly. I suspect this pronouncement of prayer had a rather nefarious hidden agenda. In my physically weakened state, at a time when it was unclear whether treatment would work, these Christians were hoping to trigger some doubt in me regarding my personal conviction of Atheism. Imagine the reverse scenario: I contact a Christian friend enduring the gruelling chemotherapeutic treatment of cancer and tell him, “Hey, I hope that all is well, and while I’m pulling for you, I just want to remind you that there is no god, but all the best.” I am being flippant here, but I stand by my underlying premise. If people did not have a hidden religious agenda, then there would have been no grounds to bring it up when offering condolences to an Atheist. I seem to spend a great deal of time being sensitive to everyone else’s beliefs, yet rarely do I find those same people are sensitive to my own.
There’s this old wartime expression about there being ‘no Atheists in foxholes’. I wasn’t some guy cowering in a hole in the dirt hoping that an adversary wouldn’t find me. However, in a supremely tough and troubling time of my life, my Atheism didn’t come into question for a second. I was and continue to be singularly at peace with death, no matter what its cause. So-called Atheists who suddenly develop faith in moments of stress or duress are cowards and are likely to betray other values when those are put to the test. So I am proud that my Atheism stood up under supreme duress. The experience also taught me to stop being so accommodating of other people’s beliefs when those same people so blatantly disrespect your own.