How Cancer Changed My Faith

Posted on: August 14th, 2014 by

Trauma tests us in so many ways — physically and emotionally and spiritually. People react differently to trauma, which tests our courage and our faith, religious or otherwise. During last week’s #BCSM tweetchat, we discussed the topic of faith and cancer. Despite differences in beliefs, which ran the gamut from atheism to religious, it was a respectful, enlightening discussion.

It is said that one should never discuss religion publicly. Too many heated debates. But I’m going to discuss cancer and my faith publicly in this post.

Here’s my disclaimer: I’m not trying to proselytize anyone, nor am I looking for a heated fight or total agreement with my point of view. My beliefs are just that — my beliefs. I’m just adding to the discussion, and I certainly respect others’ beliefs.


I do believe in a higher power, although I’ve had periods of agnosticism during my life. I was brought up in a religion that, like many religions, is rich with ritual. Many of the rituals are beautiful and meaningful. To me, some of them are not. For years, I searched for comfort in my religion, but I found no comfort. Instead, I felt increasingly constrained, almost suffocated, by the trappings of organized religion. And I felt alienated by the “score keepers,” worshippers who kept score and judged me because I could never measure up to their religious standards.

Still, I longed for a belief system that would best serve me.

Then came cancer, and I found my answer.

It wasn’t that simple, of course. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was crushed. Devastated. Terrified. Panicked. Depressed. And so on.

I was convinced I was going to die. And in an unhealthy marriage with a husband who no longer cared about me, I knew I would die alone.

Not always able to confide in my then-husband, I sat in our red Chevy regularly and cried alone. I did a lot of praying during this time, but oddly, I never prayed for my life to be spared. I don’t know why I didn’t pray for that.

I prayed without knowing what I was praying for.

And it was in that car, during my greatest feelings of aloneness and abandonment, that I felt this power well up within me. And that’s when I realized I would never be alone. That come what may — live or die — God would hold me in His arms and be there for me. God would not abandon me.

And, for the first time since diagnosis, I felt some solace.

I was still terribly afraid, but believing I would die in God’s arms gave me clarity and helped me come to terms with the diagnosis and treatment.

I do want to make one thing clear: I did not believe nor do not believe that God gave me cancer for a higher purpose, to test me, or to make me a better person.

Some things do happen for a reason, but cancer is not one of them.

I am no better of a person now than I was during diagnosis and treatment. Much different, yes. But no better.

Well-meaning people have told me “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” I do not believe this. God didn’t give me cancer, the universe didn’t give me cancer to send me some profound message. There was no purpose to my having cancer.

Cancer just happens.

And often it was more than I could handle, as evidenced by my public breakdowns during diagnosis and treatment.

No, there was no higher purpose to my having cancer. But there was purpose to my suffering. I suffered so I could hopefully live, I suffered so I could have a child one day, I suffered to spare my family from enduring a heart-wrenching loss. As Viktor Frankl says in his wonderfully insightful book Man’s Search for Meaning, “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life….”

His book’s overarching premise is that one can endure suffering — whatever the outcomes — if one can find meaning in that suffering.

And he’s right.

A Different Kind of Faith

Having cancer gave me another kind of faith — in myself. I learned how to speak up for myself in medical situations, giving me some control in a situation that was out of my control.

I realized that I was my own best advocate, and I learned to navigate the crazy maze that is the healthcare system. I learned not to put up with doctors who were bullies, as well as to choose excellent physicians.

My faith in my wonderful medical team deepened as my treatment continued, and my faith in my oncology nurse became stronger each treatment day. Ann was wonderful, and I will devote a future post to her, as oncology nurses are true champions.

My marriage ending caused me much contemplation, and I realized I had someone I could rely on — me. Living alone for the first time in my life, I realized I was more self-sufficient than I had ever known.

I was lonely at times, but never alone.

Despite the numerous emotional scars — not to mention the physical scars — my faith in a higher power and myself remain intact.

Today I do not affiliate myself closely with any religion, but as many people are, I am deeply spiritual. I am not at peace with cancer and its aftermath, but I am at peace with my faith.

bamboo and sun

At least for now…

Has cancer or any illness for that matter changed your faith? If so, how? If not, why not?

There are many types of faith besides religious/spiritual faith. What kind(s) of faith did you have following cancer diagnosis and treatment or any other illness?

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9 Responses to How Cancer Changed My Faith

  1. Rethink Street had this to say about that:

    Hello Beth, thanks for sharing your thoughts on spirituality and faith. It is a deeply personal thing and have you explained it all so clearly. Me, I still have a long way to go in figuring out what I really believe … but it’s a work in progress.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Rethink Street,

      Yes, faith is definitely personal, and although I seem like I have a set path, a crisis can change everything. It’s OK for one’s beliefs to be a work in progress. I think our beliefs change over time.

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

  2. Marie Ennis-O'Connor (@JBBC) had this to say about that:

    Beth what a great post. You strike just the right balance here. I have a shaky faith at the best of times, and find it hard to identify with those who speak and write from a place of strong faith (in truth I envy them their faith). We all need to find meaning in life’s struggles and Frankl’s book is one that I have read many times.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you, Marie!

      I still have times where my faith is shaky. I think people have questioned their faith since the beginning of time. I still question mine from time to time. I’ve known people whose faith, especially in an organized religion, is unwavering, and I marvel how they do it.

      I’ve also read Frankl’s book many times. It gives me such comfort, especially during distressing times. In fact, this is the book I’ve given to others as a present more than any other book.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. :)

  3. Pingback: Weekly Round Up: The Let’s Talk About Depression Edition | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

  4. had this to say about that:

    Beth, I love this post and relate to many of your sentiments. I also read “Man’s Search for Meaning” during cancer recovery. I found the aftermath of cancer to be even more depressing than going through treatment. Frankl’s book is a gem.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you, Eileen, for reading and commenting. I totally agree about the cancer aftermath. It was the same for me — I became even more depressed after treatment, trying to readjust my life. Frankl was a genius for sure.

  5. Kate, of Kate Has Cancer had this to say about that:

    “Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.” Mother Teresa

    I am glad you found comfort, Beth. Thank you for sharing.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Kate,

      Thank you for sharing such a beautiful quote by Mother Teresa. It’s so fitting.

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