Reconciling Faith, Family, and Cancer

by Steven WelchSurvivorJanuary 13, 2021View more posts from Steven Welch

Growing up in a religion that kept you in line by catastrophizing everything, I would have thought that my whole life leading up to that point was preparing me to handle the word “cancer” when my doctor called on December 21st, 2015.  After all, there isn’t a much bigger catastrophe when it comes to your health.  However, I wasn’t prepared for that call at all.  The news hit me like a ton of bricks; and it all started with a cliche, “Hello, are you sitting down?”.  Everything flashed before my eyes: my life, my choices, my family, my friends… my mortality.

Quite often, I am asked what the worst part of having cancer was, and I always respond the same: the hardest part was the emotional struggle after treatment ended. I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t have to endure chemo.  I got off easy with iodine radiation that only required five days in isolation.  I only had a one night stay in the hospital after my full thyroidectomy surgery, and had a relatively quick recovery time.  I was lucky enough to have decent insurance, therefore it wasn’t a major financial issue.  What scared me the most was facing my own mortality and the emotional repercussions that came after getting the “all clear”.   Everyone around me got to move on and celebrate my recovery while I was still left completely broken.  I was left dealing with all of the emotional wounds that were far from healing and living in fear that every ache and pain was a symptom of something much more than just getting older.

I’m certain that everyone feels the ground fall out from underneath them the moment they hear the C-word. You start from feeling invincible to being handed this kryptonite called cancer.  When a person hears that word, it is human nature to feel the devastating reality of your own mortality.  Processing that diagnosis inevitably comes with the thought of “what if I die?”, but I had never truly been scared to die for most of my life.

I was born in a household where religion was coursing through our veins in every aspect of your life.  We read scriptures at breakfast.  We talked about our spiritual goals like most kids would talk about school dances or extracurricular activities.  We didn’t just say a prayer before a meal, we used it as a way to have an ongoing conversation with God.  We were expected to have daily personal bible study.  We also had family bible study at least once a week.  That was on top of attending church three times a week.  We rarely spent Saturdays playing and unwinding from school like most kids, we used them to be ministers to others.  We would go door to door and share our teachings with strangers, because we knew to our core that ours was the only true religion.  Our only goal in life was showing others this “truth” we believed beyond the shadow of a doubt that we had.

I was the youngest of seven kids and we all believed with every fiber of our being that we were part of the only true religion.  We didn’t entertain secondary education because spiritual education was more important than what any college could give us.  We didn’t work to get ahead in life, we worked to support our ministry and to keep a roof over our heads.  We lived our lives for God and no one else.  That was our sole purpose in life.

If you were a faithful member of the organization, you would get to live forever on a paradise earth.  All other people who didn’t accept our message from God would die at Armageddon.  We were taught that if you were had the right heart condition of putting God’s word above all else, you didn’t have to fear death!  This life was nothing more than a waiting game for the perfect existence we were all working towards.

However, if you did anything that disobeyed God’s commandments, you were facing excommunication.  Since you did not associate with anyone outside of the organization, meant losing everyone in your life.  Once you were excommunicated, your family and friends could no longer carry on a relationship with you while still remaining faithful to the religion…and the religion was number one above everything else, even family.  You also faced the very real possibility of dying a horrible death at Armageddon for your sins.  Beyond that, if you watched movies about ghosts or spirits you were opening yourself up to being exposed to the possibility of demon possession.  In fact, even the act of buying an antique could lead you to demon possession because the owner of it prior to you purchasing it could have been into spiritism… and the list of deeply instilled fears goes on and on and on (there’s the catastrophizing I was referring to).

In our religion, there were basically two paths you could choose.  The most common was to graduate high school, find a nice spiritual girl to marry, and continue focusing your life on preaching the message to anyone who would listen.  The other, more “elite” option was trying to be one of the few chosen to go work for virtually free labor at the headquarters in NYC. Unfortunately for me, neither were really an option because I had a secret.  I was growing up in rural PA, raised in one of the strictest religions known, in a family that was as devout as you could possibly get…and I was gay.  Homosexuality was a sin and I was lucky enough to be born that way. I can’t say that I hit the genetic lottery, being born gay and growing up knowing that the only way of life I had ever known could in no way coexist with this other major part of myself.

For years I tried to shove it down and pray the gay away, but that only lead me to severe depression.  So finally, when I was 20 years old, I started the process of separating myself from the religion.  This wasn’t because I didn’t believe the teachings, it was because I wasn’t emotionally able to live a lifetime of loneliness that would come with denying myself love to remain faithful to those teachings. In my exit, I lost almost everyone in my life.  The feeling of loneliness was crushing.  I still had all of these indoctrinations but with no friends and family, and no preparation for the real world.

Over time I started meeting new and wonderful people whom, much to my surprise, genuinely cared about me.  I realized that not everything outside of the religion is bad, like I had been taught my whole life.  I met people who liked me for all of me.  I didn’t have to hide any major parts of myself to keep them around.  They didn’t love me despite my sexuality, they loved me because it’s part of what made me.  I had finally met people who taught me what it was like to be loved unconditionally.  And with time and love comes healing.

When I received that phone call from my doctor in 2015, I had spent 13 years rebuilding myself, and I was in the happiest place I had ever been in my life.  The long battle of fighting the emotional issues that came with leaving the religion was mostly over!  I stopped feeling that part of me was wrong.  I had dismantled almost all the deeply indoctrinated fears that haunted me for years after leaving.  I stopped having nightmares about Armageddon (mostly).  And I had a tribe of people that supported and loved me fiercely.  I had worked hard and got a good and secure job.  I had a boyfriend I had been with for over four years.  I wanted to marry him and spend the rest of my life making a family with him.  I was good, I was happy!  I was living the life I had built for myself despite my upbringing.

Hearing the word cancer was not part of what I had prepared myself for during my road from the religion to my happiness.  I was not prepared for the old wounds that would be reopened and the emotions that came along with them.  I hadn’t revisited enough of my relationship with spirituality to have a clear view of what happens if I die.  I didn’t have a hope for the future like I used to.  I used to know that when I died, it was just a quicker way into paradise.  I would be resurrected and find happiness all around me … now what would happen?

For the first couple of months I could hold these thoughts at bay because I was in survival mode.  I had to meet with a surgeon.  I had to have and recover from the surgery.  I had endocrinologist appointments.  I had treatment.  I had follow ups.  I had scans.  I had no time to fall into an existential crisis.  But then one day I heard the words, “no evidence of disease”.  And just like that, I wasn’t actively fighting to stay alive anymore. I was just living… and left processing these thoughts and fears.

As I mentioned earlier, for me the hardest part of my cancer journey was when it was “over” (although, it’s never truly over).  I hadn’t been prepared to face my own mortality and all of the baggage that came with it.  I had an amazing life that was fractured by this diagnosis.  Now I had to navigate this new status of being a survivor and get back to myself, my fears and the emotional trauma.

I endured a lot of soul searching.  While I had no intention of returning to a religion that would only accept me if I denied myself love, I couldn’t prohibit the thoughts flooding in of how to reconcile mortality with the lack of faith.  I felt lost and depressed.  I had an incredible support system, but I felt like no one in my life at the time truly understood this feeling.

In early 2016, I met Stephanie Scoletti while doing some volunteer work.  I still had a very visible incision site on my neck, and she approached me asking if I was a survivor.  She let me know that she ran a young adult cancer support group and invited me to join.  I didn’t know if I was a “support group kind of person”, but I was so broken that I decided to give it a shot.

The first night I showed up to the group, everything changed.  I sat around the table and watched in awe as these incredibly strong, beautiful souls shared their story with me–a stranger.  Much to my surprise, they faced so many of the same emotional issues that I was carrying.  Most of them dealt with the same depression and fears post-treatment.  They hadn’t all come from strict religious backgrounds, but they all had their own versions of my story.  I had never felt less alone.

This is the day I can pinpoint that I went from feeling completely lost to seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.  The amount of healing that happened to me in that first night was immeasurable. My boyfriend watched me leave the house as someone who would spontaneously break down crying out of confusion and return home with a light in my eyes from a reignited hope that I hadn’t felt for a long time.  I didn’t know how to reconcile all of my fears and emotions, but I now knew that I had found a new tribe of people who would love and support me while I started picking up the pieces and getting to work.

It has now been five years since that day I got that call, and I am still an active member of YASU (Young Adult Survivors United).  This group of people continues to be some of the most beautifully strong warriors that I have ever had the privilege of meeting.  We have lost some members and mourn them every day, but I watch in awe as we all continue to support each other and lift one another up when we need it the most.  People who are weak and broken from their cancer and treatment show up constantly to find love and support in one another.  They are as much my tribe as my friends and chosen family.

I am now married to that incredible man who held me as I cried all of those times.  He was beside me every step of the way and holding my hand at every doctor’s appointment.  My friends have been there too, holding me up and catching me when I’d fall.  I am so humbled by the amount of love I have in my life and the support of these amazing people who found me at my darkest and loved me until I loved myself.  I am mostly whole again.

While I still haven’t fully reconciled my thoughts on what happens after we die, I don’t feel that emptiness anymore.  The cracks are patched over with the love of my chosen family and friends as well as my cancer family.  I found the courage to finally come out to my family and let them know that my life is filled with joy and contentment. It was the nail in the coffin for any kind of future contact from them, but it also was the most liberating thing that I’ve done, and I know that I will be fine. I beat cancer, and I can certainly handle this.

If you are reading this and somewhere in your cancer journey trying to find a way out of that darkness that comes along with it, I cannot recommend enough to find a support group.  Even if you don’t have all of the answers right in front of you, it is indescribably empowering to have a tribe of people who understand and can humanize the struggle along with you.  Their support is solely there to help you get through it.  And if you are a young adult dealing with cancer and you’re looking for a community, please come and join us at YASU.  We’d love to have you become part of our chosen family!

Want to hear Steven read his story? Click here to sign up for Perkatory on Thursday, January 28th at 7:00pm EST!

This article was in our December 2020 Magazine – Click Here to view that issue!


All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at https://www.elephantsandtea.com/contact/submissions/.

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