On Being Honored for Having Gotten Cancer

So, this awesome and somewhat weird thing has happened. I’ve been named the 2013 Honored Hero by the Foundation Beyond Belief for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation’s Light the Night Walk.

This is a slightly odd thing. It’s wonderful, don’t get me wrong: I’m touched by it, it makes me feel both proud and humble, it inspires me to work harder for this movement. But it is slightly odd. And it’s making me think more carefully about what it means to live an honorable humanist life, a life that’s worth being honored for.

A brief bit of background. In October of 2012 I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. I got lucky, if getting cancer can ever be “lucky”: the cancer was Stage 1, caught early, and they’re pretty sure they got all of it. I didn’t need chemo or radiation. All I needed was to get my uterus and ovaries cut out, and then to recover from the whole “having a major organ cut out” thing. I do have a genetic condition, Lynch Syndrome, which greatly increases my risk of getting certain cancers (including this one). Emotionally this feels a bit like having a time bomb in my body, but on a practical level, it mostly just means I have to get a colonoscopy once a year and get the pre-cancerous doodads scooped out before they turn ugly.

So that’s the first bit of background. The second bit: the Foundation Beyond Belief is once again supporting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation’s big annual fundraiser. Last year, the first year of the FBB’s participation in the Light the Night Walk, they raised $430,000 dollars. This was the largest amount ever raised by a first-year non-corporate team, and the fourth largest amount raised by any team in the nation in 2012, including corporate teams. As awesome as this was, they’re hoping to outdo themselves this year. Now that the atheist community is familiar with this event and the structures are in place, they’re raising their sights to a goal of $500,000.

Last year, they named Christopher Hitchens as their International Team’s Honored Hero. As someone whose atheism and cancer were both very public, Hitchens was an obvious figure around whom the community could mobilize for this event.

This year, they’ve named me.

I am both proud and humble that they thought me worthy of this honor. But I’ll be honest: I’m also slightly puzzled by it. When I first heard about it, I kept thinking, “Why am I being honored for getting cancer?” I mean, it’s not like getting cancer is an accomplishment. It’s not something I made happen—it’s something that happened to me. If I could have avoided it, you better believe I would have.

But when I think about it more carefully, I don’t think I’m being honored for having gotten cancer.


Thus begins my latest column for The Humanist magazine, On Being Honored for Having Gotten Cancer. To read more, read the rest of the piece. And if you want to take part in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation’s Light the Night Walk under the Foundation Beyond Belief banner, here’s how to get started.

On Being Honored for Having Gotten Cancer
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3 thoughts on “On Being Honored for Having Gotten Cancer

  1. 1

    Thanks, Greta, for your talk, where you said:

    the mantra I repeated again and again was, “Self Care Is Not Selfish.”

    I felt you made a very valid point, that is applicable in many areas. Also, it reminded me of what they say on airplanes. In case of loss of cabin pressure, masks will drop down. Put your OWN mask on first, before assisting others.

    So in general, our first duty is to make sure we don’t pass out before we can do anything to help others.

  2. 3

    It is not a strange honor at all.

    Did you ever watch the 2001 film “Enemy at the Gates”? It was a so-so war movie, and I won’t pretend to know your tastes in film, so I won’t recommend it. It had a really amazing philosophical point to make, however.

    An enormous part of being a hero is being thrust into a situation that you had no part in creating. This is true of just about everyone who is honored in this kind of way. Most people never have the chance to make great risks or face enormous adversity, so we will never know how honor worthy they are. All we can do is go with the examples that fall out for us, and bravely dealing with cancer while maintaining intellectual integrity is extremely honor worthy. You spell out quite nicely what you are really being honored for, but it is in no way unique because some terrible circumstances were foisted upon you that had nothing to do with your choices in life. If you had never gotten cancer, sure, you would not have been recognized, but there are always elements of heroic situations that are beyond control. Firemen that save many lives would not have had the chance to be heroic if nothing bad happened around them either.

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