Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 5: A Secular Mindset

I composed the post below before reading Diamante Lavendar’s powerful paean to spirituality on this site. The benefits of spirituality that she describes are undeniable, but I believe they are also available through other means and without reliance on a supreme being. Here’s my take on one such alternative pathway.

In previous posts, I described some strategies that sustained me during my prolonged treatment for acute myeloid leukemia. Here, I add one more item to that list. While many people rely on religious faith in a medical crisis and while I respect such beliefs, I followed a different road.

It didn’t start that way. My parents were nominal Catholics and I was raised in that tradition. I was baptized, took first Communion, was confirmed, and attended Sunday Mass with my family into my early teens. With the onset of puberty and a teenager’s classic sense of immortality, however, Catholicism lost its relevance for me. I fell away from a religion I had never fully embraced.

After drifting through my teenage years, I enrolled in college and became enamored with philosophy and sociology. I found their emphasis on scientific observation, logical reasoning, and rational explanation to be much more compelling. I became a “child” of the Enlightenment, a practicing sociologist, and a secular humanist.

One benefit of this world-view is described in Philip Zuckerman’s Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. He notes that secular-minded people may actually weather challenges such as a life-threatening illness more readily than someone who is religious. For the latter, such an event may precipitate a crisis of faith and a quest to restore that faith while also dealing with their illness. For the secular-minded, there is no crisis because there was no ultimate faith to be shaken in the first place.

This could allow secular-minded folks to more readily adopt a pragmatic, problem-solving attitude toward life’s misfortunes. This attitude was certainly reflected in the pro-active stance that I brought to my treatment. Whenever possible, I sought to act and solve problems in ways that would foster my recovery. When that wasn’t possible, I learned new levels of patience and non-judgmental acceptance from my practice of mindfulness. And finally, I also accepted that there was an irreducible element of luck or random variation that would determine the outcome of my treatment.

My beliefs allowed me to arrive at a good place during a bad time. The secular world view I had nurtured my entire adult life was like a comforting companion on the roller coaster ride that was my diagnosis, treatment, and eventual recovery.  Standard disclaimer: I have no idea if my secular practicality had any direct bearing on my successful outcome, but it certainly sustained my sense of self over the long haul.


steve bSteve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor.  In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness.  His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing. To learn more visit Steve’s website.

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