On Being Honored for Having Gotten Cancer

So, this awesome and somewhat weird thing has happened. I’ve been named the 2013 Honored Hero by the Foundation Beyond Belief for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation’s Light the Night Walk.

This is a slightly odd thing. It’s wonderful, don’t get me wrong: I’m touched by it, it makes me feel both proud and humble, it inspires me to work harder for this movement. But it is slightly odd. And it’s making me think more carefully about what it means to live an honorable humanist life, a life that’s worth being honored for.

A brief bit of background. In October of 2012 I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. I got lucky, if getting cancer can ever be “lucky”: the cancer was Stage 1, caught early, and they’re pretty sure they got all of it. I didn’t need chemo or radiation. All I needed was to get my uterus and ovaries cut out, and then to recover from the whole “having a major organ cut out” thing. I do have a genetic condition, Lynch Syndrome, which greatly increases my risk of getting certain cancers (including this one). Emotionally this feels a bit like having a time bomb in my body, but on a practical level, it mostly just means I have to get a colonoscopy once a year and get the pre-cancerous doodads scooped out before they turn ugly.

So that’s the first bit of background. The second bit: the Foundation Beyond Belief is once again supporting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation’s big annual fundraiser. Last year, the first year of the FBB’s participation in the Light the Night Walk, they raised $430,000 dollars. This was the largest amount ever raised by a first-year non-corporate team, and the fourth largest amount raised by any team in the nation in 2012, including corporate teams. As awesome as this was, they’re hoping to outdo themselves this year. Now that the atheist community is familiar with this event and the structures are in place, they’re raising their sights to a goal of $500,000.

Last year, they named Christopher Hitchens as their International Team’s Honored Hero. As someone whose atheism and cancer were both very public, Hitchens was an obvious figure around whom the community could mobilize for this event.

This year, they’ve named me.

I am both proud and humble that they thought me worthy of this honor. But I’ll be honest: I’m also slightly puzzled by it. When I first heard about it, I kept thinking, “Why am I being honored for getting cancer?” I mean, it’s not like getting cancer is an accomplishment. It’s not something I made happen—it’s something that happened to me. If I could have avoided it, you better believe I would have.

But when I think about it more carefully, I don’t think I’m being honored for having gotten cancer.

I think I’m being honored—among other things—for how I dealt with my cancer, and how I’m continuing to deal with it. I’m not going to succumb to false modesty here: I think I’ve dealt with my cancer diagnosis well, in a way that’s greatly informed by my humanism and atheism and skepticism, in a way that I hope can be a role model for other humanists, atheists, and skeptics. And I think that’s what I’m being honored for.

For starters, I haven’t let myself succumb to the false comforts of religion. There’s a fair amount of uncertainty in a cancer diagnosis, even when you get lucky and catch the cancer early. And that’s scary and difficult to deal with. I could see how people with cancer would want to believe in prayer, in magical healing energies, in The Secret, in any number of wishful delusions of control. But I haven’t gone there. I haven’t succumbed to the false hope that if I do the right superstitious rituals and think the right thoughts about the right imaginary friends, I’ll be guaranteed to stay cancer-free. I haven’t even been tempted: my atheism and anti-theism are so deeply ingrained that the very idea of turning to religion seems both repugnant and ludicrous. So I’m letting myself live with uncertainty. I’m letting myself live with the understanding that life is fragile, and unpredictable: the understanding that we have to move forward as best we can, make the best plans we can… and make the best adjustments we can when life smacks us on the head with a two-by-four.

I’ve also made my decisions about my cancer based on evidence and reason and the best medical science available, even when that’s been really freaking hard. Again, there’s a fair amount of uncertainty in a cancer diagnosis. There are lots of decisions you have to make with limited information—decisions without obvious answers. I’ve been willing to make those decisions based on the best available scientific information, with an understanding of how limited and imperfect science is in general, and medical science in particular. I know that my doctors don’t know everything; they can’t guarantee me a perfect outcome. And I know that they still know a whole lot more about cancer than I do, and that listening to them will give me my best chance.

And when you have cancer, there are a lot of decisions that are obvious, but that suck. I didn’t want to let them take my ovaries. I didn’t want to start moving and walking the day after my surgery. I didn’t want to go on anti-depressants when the combination of the cancer diagnosis and my father’s death two weeks earlier triggered a serious episode of depression. I griped and whined and moaned about it all, and I did it anyway. Again, the discipline of a reality-based life is so deeply ingrained by now, it never occurred to me to say, “I’m just going to do what I feel like—those doctors don’t know anything.”

And I think—I hope—that I’ve been dealing with my illness, and my recovery, with both toughness and flexibility. I went back to work as soon after the surgery as I could. I love my work—it’s central to the meaning of my life—and I wanted to get back to it as quickly as possible. (My editor here at the Humanist recently pointed out that, throughout my recovery from the cancer surgery, I never missed a deadline. Until she mentioned it, this hadn’t occurred to me. And it hadn’t occurred to me that this might be somewhat unusual.) At the same time, I’ve been taking care of myself. I let myself ease back into work gradually. I scaled back on my writing pace. At conferences and on speaking tours, I’ve been giving myself breaks. When my recovery from surgery took longer than I’d thought, I let myself re-think my schedule. I’ve been prioritizing my recovery and my physical health, even when it meant passing on opportunities that I hated passing on. I’ve been willing to ask for help. None of which comes naturally to me. I just gave a talk at the Secular Student Alliance conference on avoiding activist burnout, and the mantra I repeated again and again was, “Self Care Is Not Selfish.” I’ve been trying to not be a hypocrite, and to apply this mantra to myself.  I think—I hope—that I’ve been tough and tenacious and strong… and at the same time that I’ve been honest about how hard this has been. I’ve been letting it shape me into somebody new.

I think that’s the stuff I’m being honored for.

There are things in our lives that we make happen, and things that happen to us: things that we choose, and things that we really don’t. (Assuming that we have anything resembling free will, which is a rabbit hole I don’t feel like going down just now.) We have good luck and bad luck, privilege and marginalization, times when we win the lottery and times when pianos fall on our heads. Some of us get more of the one side; some get more of the other. And all too often, we get rewarded and stroked and patted on the back for the good things we didn’t earn to the point where we start thinking it’s ours by right.

But there are things that we do earn. There are things we fight for. There are things we take risks for. There are things we sacrifice for. There are hard truths that we accept. When things happen to us that we can’t control, there are hard choices we make about how we respond. And I think it’s right that we recognize that, and honor each other for it.

So this honor is slightly weird. But I’m good with it.

To participate in the Light the Night Walk under the Foundation Beyond Belief banner, go to foundationbeyondbelief.org/LLS-registration, and find out how to join an existing team, or start one of your own.