Last month, along my virtual travels to the other side of the world, I met a beautiful and kind atheist who is facing terminal stage 4 cancer. After reading her online post, I was haunted with questions about life changes, ephemerality, and coping mechanisms outside of the context of religion. I wrote to her and asked if she would grant me the honor of an interview. I’m happy to say that she consented to let me share her story and her thoughts with my readers. Her name is Jane, and these are her words to us:
Please share a little bit about who you are.
I grew up in a leafy suburb of North London called Hadley Wood. I was an only child until my brother was born, when I was seven. He had downs syndrome and died nearly three years later. This didn’t affect me overtly as he never lived at home, but it brought many problems to my parents which naturally filtered down to me.
I married at 18 and was pregnant. Stupid, but who ever went through life and didn’t do something a bit stupid?
I spent my 80s married to hubby #2. The marriage fizzled in 1993, around the time I met husband #3, who I am still with and devoted to.
I like the beach, my dog, food, good sci fi, and people.
Talk to me about your life as an atheist.
My parents were not religious, but I was exposed to religion growing up. While Hadley Wood is not far from London, it has more of a village feel, and many of the events and activities were run by churches. I attended Sunday school at a local chapel, and a Sunday school for older kids called Pathfinders in my early teens. I even went to a Catholic girls’ school for two years, with nuns! I attended that school because I was enduring bullying at my other school. However, the religion at the Catholic school was overwhelming. I found the concept of confessing your sins and thereby erasing them obscene. It wasn’t long before I felt bullied again, but this time for not fitting in religiously.
I already had been questioning religion and the Bible from a very young age. I wondered, at first, if it was only the Protestant religion that was illogical. I friend of mine as Jewish, and that seemed more sensible at the time. But the more I exposure I had to religion, the sillier it seemed. I was 14ish when I rejected religion completely. None of my family is religious but it was still a difficult stance to take.
During my 20’s, my in-laws were churchgoers. I liked to help out at the fundraising events. I love a jumble sale. (The priest thought he was getting me in through the back door!) Another neighbour who was very deeply religious thought I would go to heaven because I am a good person. I was quite proud to have shown that the non-believer can also be good.
Nothing really drove my decision. It all seemed, and still does, too foolish for anyone with half a brain to call real. I am not a very spiritual person. Crystals are pretty, but they won’t heal me. Reiki massage feels good but doesn’t do anything more than any other massage. I don’t believe in horoscopes, but they are fun.
I do believe there are things we don’t understand yet, like why some people see ghosts, but I’m convinced that one day science will provide answers to many of the things we now think of as mysteries.
How long have you been battling cancer?
I was first diagnosed in late 2000. I spent nearly all of 2001 in treatment. I was 42. I was kind of expecting it as my mom had cancer when she was about 45. I did well and went on to take tamoxifen for 5 years. I thought I had beaten it, but on New Year’s Eve, 2012, I received confirmation that it had returned.
The second time was a lot more devastating. It had spread to all the major lymph nodes. Once it does that, the next move will often be into the major organs. The stress of anticipating that possibility was worse, at that time, than the physical effects of the cancer itself. I was now classified as stage 4, but I responded well to chemotherapy. Everything shrunk. Some of the cancer even disappeared.
I didn’t feel terminal.
I had anastrozole from then on, and suffered lots of hot flashes etc. I did well but not as well as before. Mentally it was more difficult. I got some great counseling, which I still do. Also, we retired at this time.
In December 2016, I started getting pains in my side and back. Nothing alarming, but they didn’t relent so I went to the doctor for more scans. Sure enough, the cancer has returned.
Spine, hips, Shoulder, and liver.
I had emergency radiation on my back which helped with pain, then started round 3 of chemo.
I finished that 2 months ago. I am very tired all the time. Also last week, a new pain started which could be further liver damage or maybe damage to my gallbladder. It’s a waiting game now.
Can you recall anything specific from your youth that confirmed, at least in your mind, that religion was illogical?
At my junior school, dinner tables were 7 pupils to 1 teacher. When I was around 10, the teacher we had at our table was a Jehovah’s Witness, though I didn’t realize it at the time. She spoke about religion constantly at dinner, and I would engage in conversation with her. She said everyone goes to heaven. I remember saying that it must very crowded. “We can’t be there in corporeal form. Far too many people.” She disagreed, to which I replied, “But it’s impossible. Please explain how this can happen.” She said, “God sorts it out.” “But Howwww?” I insisted, at which point she got cross. “How can she be cross?” I wondered to myself. These seemed perfectly logical questions to me.
This teacher soon transferred from our table.
Even before this, I had already had lots of questions. Noah’s Ark never made sense to me. What about the fish? And certainly, why didn’t the animals fight?
Anyway, that teacher was quite pivotal. Generally, it’s the escape route to ‘God’s plan’ that disturbs me a lot. I like proper answers.
Can you speak about some of the ways you have consciously chosen to positively impact others and the earth, throughout your life?
I have always liked to talk to people, help people. I have worked in charity shops. I used to take people to their hospital appointments. I like to offer a listening ear and am often told I am easy to talk to.
I used to pick up litter on our dog walks and would try to get a bag full a day. I must have got a lot of rubbish over the years.
I like to help out with fundraising. I consider myself good at fundraising.
How do you think your life has been affected, either positively or negatively, by your refusal to “buy into” organized religion?
I am not sure that rejecting religion has been entirely positive but, for me, a total belief would have to be in place before I could benefit from religion. I have escaped that “follow like sheep feeling,” and I feel truer to myself. Plus, I had a job which I required work on Sunday, so to be able to do that with no guilt I guess has been a bonus. But overall, I don’t think my life has been enhanced, maybe because I was never deeply indoctrinated in the 1st place. I look at the poor people who have been through a lot of turmoil and heartache and can only feel grateful that this has not been my experience.
But if I was the type that could go along for the ride to gain the benefits, I can see a lot of those: the social side, the feeling of actively taking part in something. For example, I would like to raise money for, let’s say, flood victims. I don’t have a lot to give personally. But I do have time I could give to a fundraiser, and religion sometimes facilitates that. Sure, I could do this myself by having a stall at a market. But then it would be a job. The things I sell are things I need the money for, in order to pay bills. I have volunteered in charity/thrift shops but found I couldn’t commit every week. I always assumed I would be able to donate more of my time in retirement, but I won’t be getting one of those now.
Please, people, try not to wait to do the things you would like to do.
As a nonbeliever dealing with a terminal illness, the “no afterlife” thing can be difficult. I have reconciled by assuming there will be nothing afterwards. Like before I was born, just nothing.
I guess there could be something. But if there is it will be a biological process like everything else.
None of us will know till we die.
I feel like there’s a general tendency to rely on the somewhat “easy answers” that religion offers when it comes to dealing with things like terminal illness. Have you received support from the religious and nonreligious community? How does it differ? And how do your own coping mechanisms differ from religious ones?
I don’t think religious or atheist people have supported me. My husband is my biggest support. I also have a great counselor. My husband and I have friends who are committed to taking In our dog any time, day or night, which is very good to know.
With regards to the group support, to be fair, I haven’t reached out for it, so I am in no way moaning that I don’t get it. I posted about my condition once on an atheist social media site, and it was simply one of the best things I have done. Supportive words came flying in from everywhere and I am still getting replies. So I think one of the keys to receiving support from any community is reaching out for it.
For me, the best support is someone I can just talk to. I don’t want to have to protect other people’s feelings. I feel when people treat you head on, then what they say is worth listening to. They haven’t just resorted to the typical, “Awww,” or, “Bless you,” which you can almost hear them saying to you, as well as to all the next people down the line.
Is it kind when it’s meaningless to me? I can’t answer. They don t really want to know.
Is dealing with terminal cancer different for the religious? I suppose so. They can focus on the after. I have to focus my mind on the now. I have narrowed my expectations. That was hard but needed doing, and I am so much happier for it. In a way life is a holiday now. No longer can I cook, clean, go shopping, so I let it go and get waited on. Of course, I do feel guilty that I can’t help, but I can’t so I just have to get a bit selfish.
To be honest I have thought about the comfort of believing in heaven. But on the about face, who knows if you pleased this rather strange all-powerful being and will go to hell anyway? What if the Christian God isn’t the right god? There are so many questions that it’s not consoling, other than superficially.
I get comfort from the ‘there will be nothing’ theory. Or if there is something, we all do it. It’s not exclusive.
Can you describe a moment in your life that you would consider spiritual?
I am not a spiritual person, so that spiritual one is hard to answer. I haven’t really had any spiritual revelations.
I love the coast, though. Twelve years ago, we moved away from London so that we can go to the beach on a regular basis. We go in all types of weather. The waves, the noises, smells, the feel of the sand all give me a peaceful feeling. It always chills me out. I guess that’s about a spiritual as I get!
What is something you are looking forward to celebrating?
Really looking forward to Christmas. I like Christmas. Fairy lights are magical. I also love the food. All of my tree ornaments have been bought by family and friends, or in holidays, or made by my son in school. Those ones are pretty delicate now, as he turns 40 in a month! Christmas, to me, is a time to celebrate these wonderful moments and people in my life. As an atheist, I see it as a time to take stock of the year, unwind, enjoy yourself and hopefully spread a little happiness to our fellow Earthlings.
Speaking of Earthlings, what general advice can you offer all of us, whether religious, atheist, or agnostic, when it comes to living together on this planet?
Get on with things. If you can do it, do it. Don’t wait.
Love to the full. Be kind, don’t hold back.
Think about how you would feel if you were in my place. Would you have regrets? If you answered yes, then start thinking now about how to change that.
I have taken risks and many haven’t paid off, but it was what I wanted or needed to do at the time. I don’t regret that.
Most importantly, be who you are.
Jane’s story encouraged me to better define my own thoughts about the afterlife, which I will be excited to blog about next week. I’d like to thank Jane so much for having the courage to share her thoughts with us. If you would like to leave a kind and supportive comment for her below, please do! I hope everyone is gearing up for a lovely holiday weekend. Until next weekend, much laughter and love to my diverse human family!