Breast Cancer / my cancer

Dying without god

Being an atheist with terminal cancer is hard. There is no supernatural being to plead to intervene on your behalf. You can’t “give your troubles” to anyone. It’s just you, the doctors caring for you and the people who love you. Which is not a bad thing, but it does require facing the future as a human being and not a “child of god.”

When I was a child, my toy animals protected and comforted me. They kept me safe, accepted my tears and held my secrets. It seems to me that the idea of a deity or saint does the same for people who believe. When confronted with a crisis, these figures could be appealed to and would perhaps interviene on their behalf. It must be such a comfort to honestly believe that miraculous power is genuinely available to you (if they agree to help.)

(my favorite toy was a raccoon I named Shayna (yiddish for “pretty”). She wasn’t as nice as this toy, but you get the idea)

I didn’t have that when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Or when it metastasized to my lung, bone and lymph nodes. Or last November when I learned the cancer had spread to my brain and I was going to die in six months. I wished sometimes that I could pray, but I knew full well that no one was listening. To pretend otherwise would be hypocritical and an insult to my own intelligence. I am an adult and my animals can’t protect me anymore.

Last month I learned that the Whole Brain Radiation worked brilliantly and as far as my brain was concerned, I am NED. I was so thankful to my radiation oncologist and the people who developed the brilliant new machine that closed 1″ lesions in my brain, that closed 17 lesions in total. A deity didn’t do that, people did. People who dedicated their lives to eliminating cancer and who gave me my future back. I have no illusions that I’ve got tons of time ahead of me, but I’ve got more than six months (it’s been 3 so far and I’m just getting stronger.)

Facing death without belief in an afterlife (beyond becoming a tree if I opt for a green burial – which wouldn’t be bad, especially if I can have an acacia tree planted over me) is not a problem for me. What hurts is dealing with the fear. Sometimes I imagine my dad putting his arms around me, but I know he’s gone, so it mostly just makes me miss him even more.


I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m an atheist because I cannot lie to myself, and it’s not always a comfortable or easy place to be.


27 thoughts on “Dying without god

    • I guess I agree that being an atheist is hard . Do we have to be an atheist if it is so hard .I heard of the BIG BANG and I did a little research . I have traveled the world and seen the relics of the places mentioned in that great book that so many read.You have to look at nature and the things around us and wonder as they are so much greater than any of our modern medicos.
      That is the crux of the issue as YOU have to do a little reading and then decide . It is not the end of the world that you may turn around and say there IS something far greater than any of us making all things possible. Now if this belief gives you a comfort and elevates you above the non believer then isn’t it a plus. It is Not hard to ask for forgiveness and start a new life with a new purpose . Then when you need a hand and a little support that you can hold onto I am sure you will say WHY was I a doubter .
      I have many friend here now and passed on from that ‘cancer’ thing and I myself have had a scare and I believe having had my hand in someone elses who I believed in was the difference for me.Life is full of little speed bumps and I believe we were not put on this earth to just rocket around having fun and working like a navie to just one day pass back in the dust from whence we came .I do pray that you find the way to share the magic that is there simply waiting for your hand. What did it say in that great book .. “Seek and Ye shall find ” … doable.

      • To turn to the imaginary and fictional because reality is hard is too facile an option for me. I have done the reading and as a student of history I very likely have a stronger understanding of the history of your belief system than you do.

        There are a lot of things greater than any of us, but nothing greater than all of us. Every progression in human cultural and intellectual development comes from people. People working together to understand the nature of disease and give the western world the longest life-expectancy in history. People working to end starvation, homelessness, violence against and the oppression of women and the myriad horrors that we confront and create. A team of highly dedicated scientists created the machine that eliminated the lesions in my brain. I have more rational reasons to believe in people, nature and the universe. When I need a hand and a little support, there are amazing people (#fearlessfighters) who are always there.

        It does seem so pleasant to simply turn to a paternalistic supernatural being and plead for help. To be a child of a deity is easier and more comforting than facing the world as an adult. I don’t doubt the existence of a deity, I know that there isn’t anyone in the sky waiting to make everything all better if I just pretended to believe in it.

        Besides, even if there were, I doubt your god would be a big fan of hypocrites.

  1. Acacia, I love your thoughts and I couldn’t relate more. I have never believed in a god and, throughout my treatment, I experienced the same desire to pray to something, quickly realizing it was irrational. People are the reason we can get through this. I’m sure you are well aware, but you’re not alone in a godless battle with illness. It is comforting to me, as I’m sure it is to others, to hear it put as well as you’ve written it in your blog entries. So thank you! I’m thinking nothing but positive thoughts for you and hoping that your battle is as easy and painless as it can be. Thank you for being such a strong inspiration and sharing your story!


    • Thank you Kelley! Your art helped me think a lot more about engaging with the images of my own cancer. Now I insist on having the results and images of every scan and MRI. I don’t know why, but it makes me feel a little more in control.

  2. Bravo Acacia. My Dad, also gone, gave me two stuffed dolls about 50 years ago, I started holding them again after my MBC diagnosis. They are pretty worn out like me, raggedy ann is missing some parts, also like me… but even thought they may not protect anymore, but I found them strangely comforting.

    What is more comforting to me however is reading your thoughts and the thoughts of other women I have read recently, those not afraid to express their views on dying without religion. Thank you for that.

    I’m so glad to read your radiation worked “brilliantly” and has given you some more time. I wish it was much more time.

    • Thank you Carolyn! My dad tended to pick up rocks when he went hunting. Just small ones that felt good in the hand and he kept one in his pocket all the time. I have the rock that was in his pocket when he died. I actually have a strange attraction to talismanic objects.

      I think more of us who do not believe should talk openly about how we confront cancer and mortality. I went to atheist sites and tried asking other people, but they were too busy with other issues.

      • It’s the connections isn’t it? A rock that your Dad held close, a raggedy doll… my Dad’s watch (which is broken) that my son holds dear because his Grandpa wore it every day. That’s the magic, the memories or emotions an object may evoke. And for me, feeling grounded within my family is my religion.

        I agree that we should talk more, write more… my sister is comfortable being vocal about being an atheist, thankfully however, she is healthy. I tend to shy away from shouting it out loud apart from a line or two. My shoulders bunch up when I read some of the comments in response to good people simply being honest about their non religious views.

        I hadn’t actually given any thought toward facing my death without religion until people started telling me they were praying for me. I found that rather curious, they know I’m an atheist, what would I get out of prayers? I’ll try to do a post on my own thoughts one day soon. Thanks for the prod in the right direction.

  3. Carolyn, It is all about connections and for me the tactile ones are the strongest. It’s probably why I became an art historian.

    As atheists I think our voices need to be heard. Especially writers like you. who are filled with love while clearly facing reality. Too often atheist sites are about fighting the theocracy, creating a combative stance of rational vs. irrational.

    • Thank you Acacia, your words are most kind. I’ll try to add some coherent thoughts regarding my own views on atheism and how I am dealing with this death sentence to your voice and to the other voices out there.

      Much love to you…

  4. “A deity didn’t do that, people did.” Beautiful. It’s always struck me as odd that religious people are quick to praise god when someone is healed or when treatment works, but they never blame god for assigning cancer in the first place. I don’t get it, and I’m not swayed by the pat response of “we can’t begin to understand god’s plan.”

    • I love the porky and the pink underbelly … However i did have my little rant which is a little unusual for me and like Acacia I wish I’d had a ‘good” history teacher and just maybe I’d be able to debate this a tad better. I have been fortunate to visit most places in the world and as a photographer I have captured them to my satisfaction.I have not been a church goer for many years as the debate over trivia left me cold BUT I never forgot my lessons at Sunday school as a kid.

      I now do a little.more thinking as I meet and greet others and I guess we are all capable to make our own decisions from the facts presented.When we read ‘the book” and I guess as a historian it is hard to ignore, we did cause all this grief on ourselves and so we live with it .We were also given the option if you believe and i guess that is the crux … you have to believe. Even when the surgeon says he is going to do whatever you have to believe in him or really your sub conscious will do you in .

      I’m in limbo with NO decision being made just test after test and so you then look further afield. When the medicos cannot put a finger on it and won’t say for sure ? My head space is good and while I have that ability and my faith that I can turn to I’m beating it my way i guess.I trust everyone out there with this dreaded disease can find the strength to fight which ever way works and we can continue to debate our lot .. Life really is a hoot and there is nothing on my bucket list so I’m at peace .
      BIG HUGS to everyone …. the aussie

      • I’ve spent far too much time in liminal spaces between tests and waiting for results. I’m glad that you feel at peace. Be well my friend.

  5. dear acacia,

    what a sensitive and eloquent post about a subject that receives very little attention. you have given me something profound to think about; for all of my life i have been searching for answers and have come to a place where i believe it’s the searching, the process, that sometimes feels like the purpose , as opposed to finding thoses oh, so elusive answers. perhaps, within each of us, there is a seed, a vision, a feeling of what best fits to offer comfort and peacefulness; and that, in itself, may be all that we ever discover, all, indeed, that we ever need.

    i hope that writing this post and receiving such lovely expressions of empathy and validation helps you, offers some measure of comfort, and allows you to feel embraced and cared for…

    with much love, XO,

    karen, TC

    • Dear Karen, The responses have been wonderful and really validating. I’m so heartened to know that other atheists come to their lives and relationships with others in love and respect. You guys have made me feel really safe to explore these ideas.
      Love, Acacia

      • Possibly not in the correct space for an answer to our discussion but I’m sure we can sort it out . Now since my condition I have spent time also assisting a mate who is going blind and who studies his bible with a passion . He is so much more of a full person than I am but I help and listen . I therefore asked him his thought on this topic we have been discussing and here is what he said to me …

        Len, We have been given enough intelligence to recognize what our senses tell us. By observing the things in nature and the laws of physics that balance all things in perfect harmony, tell us that there must be a superior intelligence that designed them. Further proof of the existence of God is found in the prophecies of the Christian Bible, where their fulfillment in absolute detail proves that they could not have been written by any human being, but by a power that can tell the future, humans can’t.
        They were written hundreds of years before their fulfillment, so the Christian Bible can be relied on for the truth about God and Jesus Christ. It tell us that we are created by God and that the body is only the temporary house of the eternal soul which is subject to God’s laws and plans.
        The atheist has freedom to think and do what he likes, but to deny the existence of God because of his selfish demand of God to fix his body didn’t happen, is foolishness and he will one day receive the punishment for his unbelief as is written in the Bible.
        All answers to these questions can be found by reading and studying the Bible, however few do because of their pride in their self opinion, not wanting to listen to God’s words, justifying their own thoughts and being in self denial to the truths of God.
        Regards, David G
        Maybe a little strong for some but for me it is just an awakening to go prove it to myself and then make my own judgment . I cannot imaging dying without God.
        I have always questioned what happens after death … I cannot debate for certain but I know it is not an endless journey … With so many wonderful things in this world and with some beliefs that there has to be something else . We definitely were not put on this earth to float about doing ‘our thing’ . helping others is admirable but we need to do a little more than just help . I only ask of everyone to really look at both sides and make a calculated decision and then IF you are happy and contented then yes your call, and one day you will be judged accordingly .

        I take my blind mate to the National Bowling Titles soon and that is indeed a real leveler . Blind since birth and what a full life he leads .In comparison hey ! I’m okay and I wouldn’t swap him for anything ..

      • Len,
        You will never change my mind and resorting to threatening me with being “judged accordingly” in the end is where these discussions usually break down. Focus on your friend, who shares your beliefs and treasures your company, and leave me in peace.

  6. I call myself a Jewish atheist – completely contradictory? Why, yes. I don’t believe in god, but I do believe in my culture, my family, and where I came from – I believe in those links and bonds that make life what it is. It also means believing in the fear and uncertainty that comes when what binds you together is limited to your time on this planet. It’s not always a uncomfortable position to be in, but like you, I cannot lie to myself.

    So you won’t be getting prayers from me, but love, human love.

    I really hope for more good news for you this year.

    • Me too! It’s my culture and my heritage and frankly (not to be morbid) when they come for the Jews, the fact that I’m an atheist makes no difference.

      Love does so much more than prayers and I’m lucky to have so many people whose love bolsters me every day.

      Thank you Hila, XOXO

    • >>>>>>Len,
      You will never change my mind and resorting to threatening me with being “judged accordingly” in the end is where these discussions usually break down. Focus on your friend, who shares your beliefs and treasures your company, and leave me in peace.<<<<<

      I can walk away real easy but I will leave by saying I didn't threaten you and only repeated what it says in the book. Why just take snippets to suit ourselves and not read and study and then decide ..I see you are a historian and really from what i read a real switched on lady so definitely still have all your marbles.Maybe someone else may just look a little further and find a new lease on life …. I hope so and yes tomorrow I'm off to my blind group again . I'll walk in and say HI and 30 guys/gals will say Hi Len . They can recognise a voice anywhere and really i take my hat off to them

      .Okay Acacia I'm out and I wish you well and trust that 'everything' you look for comes to you without too much drama.You have my email if ever you want to fire a broadside at me and that's okay as I'm feeling pretty confident right now .Just a simply hug to all….. goodbye

  7. Hi Acacia. I am not dying. I can’t imagine being in your (or my sister’s) shoes. For me, being an atheist is easy. I think I’ve always been one, and recall as early as eight knowing that I did not believe in what my parents did. It would never dawn on me to consider prayer or religion – haven’t when faced with the worst that life has thrown at me so far. Doubt I would if I were dying. I’ve always said that for me, knowing that my death is the end is a comfort. Thinking that some ‘higher power’ has control over my post-death destiny is frightening. I’ll stick with things that make sense. Like life existing on other planets. 🙂

    • I like knowing that when I die, there is nothing else (though I am planning on becoming a tree through my burial). It’s just when I was scared, waiting for test results or blanking out from a little seizure, it would be nice to have the giant, cuddly comfort of someone to ask to make things different than what they are. But I just can’t, because I know better.

      Buddhist practice has been helpful of late as I try to reconcile myself with things as they are, and I’ve found some confort there. I agree with you about the idea of a “higher power” being frightening because just looking at the world and it’s history it could be nothing but evil and arbitrary.

      As far as life on other planets? Why should we be the only ones out here? What makes us so special?

  8. i am staged 4 right now i dont think thr chemo is doing the trick but im ready to die yet sooner or later we all have to go have you ever read why do bad things happen ro good people a good read when I’m scared about things i pick it up and read it

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s