Sunday, April 12, 2009

My faithful struggles

I know this seems like an odd day to write a blog about this, but it is truly in the forefront of my mind. Let me give you a little background. I am kind of putting myself out there, but you will get a glimpse and what goes on in my feeble mind:) I was born and raised in a traditional Catholic family. I was baptized, had holy communion in second grade, then confirmed in 8th grade. I did all of this as an altar boy and catholic school student. It was all I really knew. I ventured off the college and occasionally went to sunday Mass, but definitely not like I used to.

In my second semester of college, I was diagnosed with Burkitt's Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, one of THE most aggressive cancers out there. Had they not found my tumor, I could have been dead within a week. They found the tumor during a routine appendectomy. Fortunately, I was part of a clinical research trial at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD where I underwent intense chemotherapy for 3 months. In 3 months times, the amount of chemo I was given was the equivalent of what most patients receive in two and a half years. Clearly, I feel very lucky to be alive. Everyone deals with a cancer diagnosis differently. Some turn to God and Prayer and this gives them the hope and determination to beat the disease. Others turn to their doctors and the science that they provide. Is either side wrong? Absolutely not.

This is where my struggle enters the picture. At 18 when I was diagnosed, I certainly prayed and to this day I say THE same prayer every night before I go to bed. I have been saying the same prayer since I was 8 or 10 years old. That being said, I no longer attend church and have recently begun to really question what I have been doing all these years. I liken it to a great match of mental ping pong. The ball goes back and forth as do my opinions and feelings. I really want to believe in God, but things have happened in my life that sometimes I do question it. I have a 15 year old friend battling cancer who was diagnosed on his 14th birthday. I lost a high school friend to Non-hodgkin's Lymphoma and I lost my aunt to Leukemia. My mother in law is currently battling Stage IIIc ovarian cancer and my good friend in Cali is battling cancer for the 4th time. Would God really allow this to happen? Or does it happen to teach us a lesson in life and living? I know my aunt and friend's ultimate deaths from cancer changed my life forever. It helped shaped the man I am today. Was this the reason they were diagnosed? Did the doctors find my tumor because God had a plan for me? I don't know right now.

I look back at my cancer and did God really cure me? Or was it the amazing doctors, drugs, and sheer will of survival that got me through the ordeal?

On the other hand, how else could all the amazing beauty in the world exist? I traveled to Ireland just after college and it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Paris? Same thing, blown away by its magnificent beauty. I have been fortunate enough to travel to both Alaska and Hawaii in the last year and a half as the president of the CancerClimber Association. These two places are gorgeous and full of natural beauty. Could these places exist without a God? Unfortunately, I don't have an answer quite yet, but I am confident that at some point in my life, it will all make sense.

I know that faith has a place and I consider myself a very spiritual person. Am I bad because I don't go to church every sunday? Some people would have me think that, but fortunately, I don't believe that one bit. If there is a God, I am pretty confident that as long as you live a good life and be the best person you can be you will be alright in his eyes. At this point in my life, I think church is a great place and venue for some people, but for me, I find more solace and spirituality on my bike or working out or riding my motorcycle. It gives me a place to escape. I think about my amazing family, friends and everything that I am thankful is almost surreal in that I am so in touch with my senses that sometimes I get emotional. If go to church, I get so caught up in the monotony of the ritual that I lose sight of why I am there.

I hope that it all makes sense. I want to believe and will continue to do my homework and read up on everything I can get my hands on, but I do know that if we live a good life and be the best person we possibly can be, then everything will work itself out. If there is a heaven, I hope that I will be there when it is my time. I also hope that I make sense of this nature versus God struggle. I am hopeful that this is just another phase in my life and as I get older I will learn more and hopefully do the right thing. I ask that you don't judge me, but help me. I don't know it all and certainly have never professed to. I know religion, like politics, is fueled with passion and belief. I hope to learn something from all of you.

Joe Schneider


  1. I find it so interesting that you posted this blog and talked about "Your 15 yr old friend" and "Your friend in Cali battling for the (4th) time." ;) Jonathan and I have had this EXACT type of conversation a few times. Religion. The Power of Prayer. Heaven? How? Why? Just everything.

    So I just wanted you to know that I GET this blog so much! It's like you wrote what "we" have been thinking.

  2. thank you for writing this blog...I, too, have the same struggles. Is it fair? not sure...will God look out for me? I hope so. Nature versus God is such a daily struggle

  3. WOW........did you just read my mind? BRAVO for putting your thoughts to paper..

  4. Gena, Gena, and I have always thought alike and I am not surprised Jonathan is on the same page. I swear this is such a struggle. I get so much pressure from one part of my family, but then the pragmatist in me makes me question everything.

  5. I am going to differ a bit from some of the comments here so if you find them offensive I most certainly understand if you need to delete what I write. Now, after my disclaimer, :-) You see, all that really matters Joe is this, do you have faith in Christ and a personal relationship with Him? It's the only detail which really matters to Him. Church is merely an expression of ones' faith. Going to church does not result in another person being "more accepted" by God than one who does not attend so do not place this guilt on yourself. God is interested in your heart. If God has your heart, the rest falls into place. He knows we are imperfect and always will be but He loves us anyway. There are plenty of people who attend church and God does not have their heart. Sad to say, but I often find some of the most horrendous, un-God like people I have ever known were regular church attendees and would never think of missing a service. Case in point, BTK (aka Dennis Rader) serial killer right here in KS. He attended church without fail and even served on the board. God clearly did not have his heart. So, without rambling on too much I close with this, People spend too much of their energy trying to be "good" and okay with God. This is a moot effort because no one can ever be "good" enough for God. That is the cool part, He loves us and all we have to do is give Him our heart. Hope you understand what I mean. I am not bible beater. Just a woman who decided to stop making my faith so complicated and accept what was given to me since I will never be good enough. Pretty cool place to be.. for me anyway. :-)

  6. Well Gena already mentioned that her and I have had this same type of conversation a few times.

    Unlike you I have not been brought up with any type of religion at all...I think I can count on my hand the number of times I have gone to church. It wasn't until I got my cancer that I really seriously started to question it or even think about religion or God. I have talked to individuals, read about religion and such but ultimately find the same conviction as you. My spirituality comes within relationship with god, my hope and my faith.
    I believe in prayer and honestly have felt the differenc it has made in my life...but does that mean I need to go to church?

    Many people have told me that "God gave me cancer so I could find him" and that statement is probably one of the hardest for me. I don't understand how a god that is suppose to be so full of love would give people cancer to find him.
    Is there Lessons learned from it? Growth beyond your years? Yes but at the price of so much that I don't see how a god would choose that. And don't even get me started on the cancer for the 4th time...that one is beyond any understanding for me.

    I'm going to wrap this up because I have already said way too much.

    Glad you posted the blog!

  7. Hey Joe!

    I'm a stage 4 Burkitt's Lymphoma "survivor," too (I hate that term...) and also have HIV. Had a bone marrow stem cell transplant just over a year ago.

    My whole experience has been one miracle after another. I only speak for myself because I have to trust God daily for my ongoing survival. Actually, though I'm now pretty much permanently disabled and have new issues coming up, I somehow find something really exciting to see what happens day by day. We live in mortal bodies -- they're not designed for an eternity. But, I think I'll have a new body once I shed this one.

    In the meantime, I don't see illnesses as something "God has done" to people. I don't understand it, but somehow I've just experience incredible peace and joy as I've trusted God through my trials. I'm thankful that I've had a sort of "artificial life extension." I'm trying to make every moment count as much as possible.

    I had lunch with three atheists today who are very good friends. They've been wounded by the church and have found rampant hypocricy and abuse. And they're all very bitter and horrible remarks to make about the cross today, on this Easter Sunday.

    I don't know how anyone can look around and be blinded by the intricacy and complexity of creation and not be convinced there is a creator.

    Ask God to show Himself to prove He is real. If you seek Him sincerely, I think He'll show Himself in some cool ways.

    Please check out my new website: -- not yet launched. You can reach me at:

    Many blessings!

  8. Hi Joe,
    I got here from facebook and it's been a long time (maybe a couple of decades?) since we've talked, but your post made me think and I wanted to respond. I've had a number of people dear to me diagnosed with HIV over the past few years, and it's hard to even try to understand how a loving God could just letthat happen. Something I read in college stuck with me, I can't remember the attribution but it was a writer talking about prayer, praying to God "Not to who I think you are, but to whom you know yourself to be" - that helps me a lot when I can't wrap my mind around who or what God is, just to send that prayer out with the hope that God hears that, regardless of how wrong my conception of God might be, or how incomprehensible I find things.

    That said, I don't believe, I can't believe, in a God that "gives' anyone cancer or AIDS...even from a traditional faith perspective, death did not come from God. What I carry with me from that Catholic schooling is a belief in a God who wants good things for us, who chooses the cross in order to be with us in our suffering, and who can transform that cross into a resurrection. I don't completely understand it. I don't think that one faith has the sole path to that God - but I keep sending that prayer out to God who knows God's self, whoever that is, and trust that God's listening.

    Anyhow, that's a lot of rambling from somebody who remembers you as an altar server. Hope that you are doing well.

    Sending love from Ecuador,
    Megan from St. B's.

  9. Thank you all for your comments. I really love the food for thought. Like I said, I am doing some soul searching I guess and I thrive on hearing others opinions as well!

  10. Joe...I have also talked to Jonthan about this one. Ironically a friend told me yesterday that seeing me alive and seeing Johnny has made them believe in God--that miracles do happen-that cancer can be cured and people who were told they were going to die could become survivors and parents. But, then they told me that they questioned their fath greatly to see the health fiasco I've been through lately-and having five family members with cancer etc. I really wasn't sure what to say to them.

    I really believe in the power of people-the power of prayer.

    But...I have been thinking in a different way as well. Do we (as cancer survivors) put more faith into God or more faith into the doctors who are playing God? Should these doctors play God and give us a timeline for our existence when there are so many miracles like you and I. Did that miracle happen because of our will to live, our faith or because of the right treatment at the right time??

  11. Joe, It's Lisa Cristia and I have battled with this since I was a child. i think there is a big difference between religion and faith. I know this might insight some peoples outrage but I do not believe in the bible. I think it's some peoples interpretation of what they think they saw or heard. If there is a car accident and 12 people see it, there is usually 12 peoples opinion about what just happened. if you look at all the different relgions they all have a central theme "LOVE"
    I have been told that I am going to hell(while I was going through my cancer) because I don't believe in the same religion as someone else. My thought was,"if there is a God and he is all forgiving then he understands and even appreciates that I question. He knows that I am the best person that I can be and that if there is a heaven I will be there in the end." Damning people and judging them for what they believe actually is the opposite of Christianity.
    While my friend of thirty years Mary was dying of brain cancer, her"religious" friends told her that if she received treatment she was a bad Christian. Receiving treatment would be going against Gods will. It took all that I had not to beat them up. I tried to reason with them and tell them that God created the science behind the treatment etc. It was actually Mary's pastor who sat me aside and told me that God loved me no matter what and that my "actions" spoke louder than words. He told me that I was acting more Christian like, than any of the others around Mary and that he knew my whole life was lived that way. He was a wise man. He told me that it does'nt matter that you declare a relgion or that you attend church, what matters is that you live your life "like a christian" and that does'nt mean declaring your love and accepting God or by going to church but simply that you live your life with kindness and love in your heart for yourself and mankind. This is what I believe. People need something to believe in and my opinion is "whatever gets you through" I have seen many people "find God" when they just simply did not have the strength inside of them to deal with the reality of their life. Not everybody is born with the same amount of strength inside of them. I have seen this too many times with cancer patients. They get their diagnosis and they give up. Why do some like you and me and Jonny find the strength to fight and win and overcome? Again I say "whatever gets you through"

  12. This is a brilliant post. Thanks for asking such important questions, so honestly. Here is how I live with the questions you asked:

    At the time of my diagnosis I attended synagogue weekly and found meaning in the connection to family tradition, ritual, and an emotional/spiritual sense of “the universe”. I never believed in God, but had a deep sense of connection to something bigger than me. As my cancer recurred multiple times, that connection waned. It is not that I became tainted or cynical, or thought “How could God do this to me?” It’s simply that I just began to relay on science for why things happen, and the connection to or belief in “the universe” no longer worked for me.

    I believe that the aspects of diseases that we cannot explain – such as why one person gets cancer and another does not - are simply scientific discoveries waiting to happen. For me there is little “meaning” in my tumors, no messages, no lessons, they are simply the mechanisms of biology.

    These beliefs of mine may sound empty, but in fact, I have found much fulfillment in looking at the scientific function of nature. It does not lift me up, it does not bring me down. My emotions do that. My response to good and bad news does that. When bad news slaps me in the face it is not faith that heals me, but instead my own self-esteem, the love of my parents and grandparents, the deep connection to my friends and family that heal me. They are also who I give thanks to when I celebrate the good stuff too.

    It does raise the problem that there is then nothing to “save me” other than science and my own tenacity. This is why I fight so hard to make sure that my doctors pay attention to me, that my nurses know what meds they are giving me, that my insurance company better as hell take marching orders from Kairol Rosenthal. In the end, it is me and science, and I know that might not be enough. It is hard to face that, and it doesn’t always feel good, but it feels very real to me, and I like that.

    I believe meaning and messages in my life do not come from my “destiny” or from good or bad events. The meaning in life comes from trying to be a compassionate person, trying live with my eyes open and helping others when I see the opportunity to.

    This is not something that I learned from cancer. This is something that I learned as a child from my parents and grandparents. My guess is that my grandparents think of this way of living as “Jewish ethics and values.” I don’t mind that label, I just like the benefit of having been taught to live that way from a very early age, and that I didn’t need something bad to teach me how to live.

    My cancer seems senseless to me. I’d be thrilled if I’d never had it. But I do have it, and am using it as a way to connect with other people around things that matter.

    Traveling the country interviewing young adult cancer patients for my book, it was so meaningful to have deep one-on-one conversations about spirituality that were devoid of religious jargon, and went to the heart of the matter of faith. I learned much from Buddhists, Evangelical Christians, Jews, Catholics, and Muslims. Even though I now consider myself an atheist, I think that chaplains are some of the coolest healthcare workers I have met during my stint with cancer.

    Thanks for letting me ramble Joe. We so need to get together soon!


  13. While I am not a cancer survivor, I believe we all go through times in our life when faith is questioned. Before blessed with Benjamin, we were pregnant and miscarreid; how could God give me a life and take it away? Why were people around me blessed with a miracle to which I was denied? The kicker for me, why were people who DIDN"T want a child being given children and we who so badly wanted one stripped of ours? So many questions that were truly unaswerable. My one friend passed along this story (I'll paraphrase) - A man was sitting under a tree observing, He noticed that a large watermelon was growing on this tiny vine and tiny acorns were growing on this enormous tree. Ironic he thought. He fell asleep, and was awoken to an acorn falling on his head. Thankful that it wasn't a watermelon, he realized that God has insight that we don't. On the same lines is this verse which has struck a chord with me, "Trust in the Lord with your whole heart and lean not on your own understanding."
    In hindsight, losing a child and having a complicated pregnancy with Benjamin has made him even more of a blessing to me. He would not be with me today, had I not miscarried. God has a plan, we are just too close to see it and sometimes our logic/pain/emotion makes it even harder.
    And imo, I agree with another poster, don't worry about the church thing. Live a good life, be a good person, care for others, let yourself love and be loved by God (if that is the decision you come to) - that is what faith is all about. The church is just there as a support, as you are there as a support in the cancer fighting world.
    Laurie (I don't have a profile) Thompson :)

  14. What a wonderful post. I always wonder why as well.
    I grew up Catholic and believing there was a higher power up there being God.
    I have to think that I'm going through the cancer experience as part of some grand plan of Gods. But yet why? I always wonder why children? Teens? Why does anyone have to be hit with this?
    Why? Why?Why?
    All I can think of now being a three time survivor is that. Knowing many with cancer. Many of us don't go to church, it doesn't make us a lessor person nor does it say who we are. There are such things as being religious but also being spiritual as well.
    I feel God has a plan and through cancer he refines us. Not that some of us really need it but, I think now through cancer that happens. I m not who I was prior to cancer I'm changed in so many ways. I think to the beauty of what we have gone through or are going through with cancer and the willingness to write about it to help or support others through it. Is a gift we are the teachers . I don't think till you go through cancer people truly understand it.
    I think to that I can be a Catholic or what ever faith anyone is out there. But what I hope to be is a better Christian by my actions show to others in this world. I think to that our actions sometimes speak louder then words.
    As for going to church. I quit.When I was really sick, I felt let down by the actions of others there. I am one of those who like yesterday took a long walk on a trail by the lake here. I got more outta being out there being surrounded by the bounty God gives us and touching base with others out there.
    I think why do we have to go through cancer. Why?
    But then when I read blogs like Gena's and Jonathon, Yours and others. I know there is a huge community of understanding out here.

    Powerful Post Joe.