A Humanist In a Foxhole

This is a guest post by Swindon Humanists member Jo Garton.


It has been said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but my experience does not support this view. My foxhole was not a literal battlefield but a metaphorical one- a cancer diagnosis. I’ve read some of the pieces by Bishop Lee Rayfield about his cancer battle recently and I have to say, despite our differences in faith in god or, in my case faith in people (I choose to define myself as a humanist) I found more with which I agreed than disagreed.

I read the bishop’s blog and was fascinated to see how he had started by referencing “Touching the Void” where Tony Simpson faced with his mortality realised he had no faith. I have had faith in the past. My daughter will soon be twenty and I remember the first thing I did when I found I was pregnant was go to Christchurch and say thank you. I remember the exact moment when my faith left me too; watching Dawn French hold the hand of teenager dying of aids because a soldier had raped her while she was collecting water for her family. I wasn’t angry with god. I just realised if there was a omnipotent, merciful god this like the holocaust and so many other tragedies could not happen.

In the Great Western Hospital, like Lee Rayfield, I was afraid waiting for a biopsy of a lump – actually mine was more of a puckering. Unlike Lee I took someone with me – when she heard I was going one of my closest friends said I shouldn’t go alone. I was glad to have her. When the compassionate woman doing the biopsy told me that it was cancer, my first reaction (idiotic I know) was, “I can’t have. I have a sixteen year old and an eighteen year old.” As if being a mother could stop cancer.

For that reason, I can’t agree with the Bishop that cancer has been a blessing. It isn’t just the individual who has cancer it is the whole family. I have spent virtually my whole life in education. Ironically I got cancer just as my children were coming up to GCSEs and A-levels and it certainly did affect them. Both my children were hugely supportive and protective, but it did have a negative emotional affect on them that still continues just over a year later.

On the other hand, there certainly were a lot of positives to come out of having cancer. My relationship with my husband is better than it has ever been. There’s nothing like a brush with mortality to make you appreciate each other! My relationship with both my parents and my stepmother has also strengthened; we value each other more. As the bishop said, you do realise how many people love and care for you and my friends were wonderful. Some people I hardly knew were wonderful and the medical treatment I had was fantastic.

In terms of fear and facing mortality the worst time was probably from diagnosis to the point when, after removing the tumour, the surgeon told me whether it had gone any further. You know you have cancer, in my case breast cancer, but you don’t know if it is one little bit or you are absolutely riddled with it. For me it was a relatively short period of five weeks. I don’t know anyone who has had a cancer diagnosis who has not considered the possibility that they might die.

However, I wasn’t afraid of dying. I was afraid of leaving my children at a vulnerable age. I did not want to leave any of the people I loved. But for myself the thought of a humanist death – the end of everything was a source of a comfort. I had known close friends and family die of cancer and it is a really horrid thing to watch. Almost always it is a relief when you feel they can suffer no more. I didn’t relish the thought of a drawn out illness, but the thought of the end of it, the release with no white light, no afterlife, just a living on in people’s memories (good or bad!) is pretty much all I would want.

Actually, I was incredibly lucky. I had a small tumour, which had not gone any further. I had radiotherapy and continue with taking the tablets, but a genetic test on the tumour (Oh, the wonders of science!) also gave me the great comfort that not only was chemotherapy unnecessary but the cancer was unlikely to return.

I agree with the bishop about the cancer putting things in perspective. I feel I want to make the most of my loved ones, I want to enjoy life and do all the things I’ve always wanted to do, instead of putting them off. I completed the twenty six mile Moonwalk this year and raised over a thousand pounds for breast cancer charities and next year I plan a parachute jump. I have a wonderful life, full of wonderful loving people, but I don’t miss god.