Justin Birckbichler is a fourth grade teacher, testicular cancer survivor and the founder of aBallsySenseofTumor.com. From being diagnosed in November 2016 at the age of 25, to finishing chemo in January 2017, to being cleared in remission in March, he has been passionate about sharing his story to spread awareness and promote open conversation about men's health. Connect with him on Instagram @aballsysenseoftumor, on Twitter @absotTC, on Facebook or via email email@example.com.
These are my thoughts on religion and cancer, but they may not be yours. Either way, I ask you to keep an open mind.
Before we begin this post about religion and cancer, I will be setting some ground rules. I am not anti-religion, atheist, nor a Satan worshipper. I would most accurately assess myself as an agnostic. I will not be attacking any views on religion, nor will I be trying to change your own views. If you want to continue the discussion further, I welcome it if it's done in a respectful and civil matter. I'll respect your ideals and you respect mine — deal?
Though I now identify as agnostic, I was raised Catholic. I went through baptism, communion and confirmation more so because it was expected of me than because I believed in the faith. I am a very literal person and rely on things that can be quantified, so it was also a hard sell for me to fully embrace all of the points of Catholicism. I thought the parables were good as life lessons, but that has more to do with moral character than religion in my opinion.
In the Catholic faith, when you are confirmed (around 13 to 15 years old), you are considered an adult and can make your own choices. As soon as I hit that milestone, I chose to no longer attend church. My only exception is if I am with my grandparents who are strong believers in Catholicism. I will go with them to spend time with them and to honor their values.
All of this background is to illustrate that religion and I weren't the strongest of friends before cancer. When I was diagnosed with cancer, any remnants that may have been holding on from years of studying the Bible completely dissipated.
When people told me that they were praying for me, I accepted it gracefully, because I knew it was their way of saying they were hoping for the best for me.
Really, I see nothing wrong with saying that to someone. It's not pushing anything on them.
Two phrases that did make me a little ticked off were: "This is all part of God's plan" or "God wouldn't give you something you can't handle." I really struggle to understand the positive meaning behind either of these sayings.
Unless you know the person you're saying this to (and know they might appreciate it), I would steer clear of them entirely.
A religious phrase that I would respectfully push back on was when I was declared in remission. A number of people said something to the effect of "Praise God!" "God is great!" or "God healed you." Again, like the prayers, I understand that is their way of showing support, but I also wanted credit to go to my medical team. I would generally say, "Thank you for saying that. I have an incredible medical team who helped me a lot." This way, I felt that both of our beliefs were honored.
If you want to give credit to God for helping heal someone's cancer, be sure to also recognize that person's medical team.
This post is probably the most open I have discussed my religious views. These are my views alone, but these are also pretty solid, middle-of-the road ground rules to follow if you're not sure on someone's stance on religion.
One thing to definitely steer clear of is questioning (or trying to change) a cancer patient/survivor's views on religion, especially if you don't know them very well. I'm very public about my cancer journey on social media, and one time a random person sent me a direct message out of nowhere asking about my religious views.
I basically summarized that I don't have any strong allegiance to any faith or God, but I respect others' rights to do so. He then followed with, "I've never met anyone who got through cancer without relying on God," and proceeded to try to convert me for about half an hour. I repeatedly told him that I respect his views and I would like if he respected mine, and eventually, he stopped.
The reverse scenario probably also holds true, where non-believers try to convert believers to their way of life. This is just as unnecessary and disrespectful. All views on religion are acceptable and a personal choice.
I'm here to say that faith in God and ability to survive cancer are not correlated. There are plenty of people who put their all into religion and still pass away and there are people who curse God and make it through.
What the cancer patient needs most at the time is your friendship and support. Maybe after everything is done, they will be open to civil discourse and conversation. Instead of focusing on Peter the Rock or getting them to join you in worshipping the devil with rock music, focus on being their rock whenever, wherever, and however they need it... especially if they want to watch any movie starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.