Cancer. It Matters. Will You Help?

My Aunt Marilyn died when I was ten. I didn’t know her well—we rarely saw anyone on that side of the family until she started dying of cancer. I think the detachment started when my father changed his last name from the Jewish-associated Gottlieb to Goddard a few years before marrying the whoops-she’s-pregnant non-Jewish immigrant black woman that is my mother. Or maybe it’s because he worked too many hours to have time to take us all out to see the relatives in the ‘burbs. I was young, so I don’t know the reasons.

Siblings & me with Grandfather

I remember visiting my cousins’ immaculate house when I was about nine, marveling at the piano my uncle would play for us, envying the little porcelain figurines and glass baubles on shelves that we weren’t supposed to touch, and there might have been a cocker spaniel named Buffy—or maybe that was at my grandparents’ house nearby—and my aunt was lying sick in a first floor bedroom. When our visits became more frequent, I played more with my two cousins who were a little older and a little strange to me. They showed me their tap shoes and told me that they actually received weekly allowances and real money under their pillows when the Tooth Fairy came, and one played the violin, and then my aunt’s hair was falling out in patches.

I was too young to understand that this ailing grown-up was my father’s little sister, his only sibling, and that when they were kids she’d play the piano to accompany his violin, and sometimes he helped her with her homework, and in the summer they’d travel “down the shore” to visit relatives, and he created the stage name “Marin the Magician” decades later as a nod to her. My father was a nurse who often brought us kids to the nursing homes where he worked rather than hire a babysitter, so I was used to him attending to people who were ill and infirm. I didn’t know that the sick woman at my cousins’ house might be different for him. I was only nine.

Months later, my aunt died from the breast cancer that metastasized to her lymph nodes. My cousins moved to Florida with my grandparents. My uncle headed to New York City to live a different life for a while. We visited my cousins in Florida once when I was 16; a few years later we attended a reunion where we were introduced as “the Gottlieb kids” and several relatives spoke quietly of my aunt’s slow death from cancer a decade earlier.

Clockwise: Cousin Judy, Uncle Artie, my father, cousin’s husband, Cousin Sharon, Grandpa Harry

Around that time, my father’s mother died from breast cancer. Then his great-aunt died from cancer. My father, meanwhile, was treated for skin cancer (his second occurrence) and prostate cancer. He died last December after a heart attack and a stroke. My uncle died in July.

When I realized at some point that the actual “Gottlieb kids,” my father and aunt, were both gone, I felt a little strange. My father lived a busy life until dying in December a day shy of his 74th birthday. He’d seen his children grow into adults, go to college, and get jobs of their own. He felt my sister’s pregnant stomach. He met my brother’s wife. My cousins don’t have those kinds of memories with their mother, because she died when they were just teenagers.

I hadn’t thought about this in a long time.

I work at the Center for Inquiry, one of the organizations supporting the Foundation Beyond Belief’s efforts to raise $1 million for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to help people with blood cancer. Because the Stiefel Freethought Foundation will match the first $500,000 donated, skeptic and secular organizations are helping FBB raise as much as they can. Two of my coworkers have been tasked with organizing our local Light The Night team and getting the word out to affiliates. I didn’t really think about it.

I didn’t even think about it much two weeks ago when I attended the Atlanta Skeptics’ Star Party, held in honor of astronomer Jeff Medkeff who died of cancer four years ago. The event also raised money for LLS and featured FBB’s Dale McGowan as a speaker.

It was on Friday afternoon that I suddenly started thinking about all of this. I’ll tell you why.

I was tweeting playfully about my recent Lyme disease diagnosis (third time!) and how glad I was to catch it before getting Bell’s palsy (because this guy’s face gives me the willies. It’s the eyes.). Elyse (who recently had a tumor removed from her stomach) and Sarah Moglia (who had some bowels removed a couple weeks ago and is in a ton of pain) sent well-wishes my way. Then it hit me. I thought, Wow, all I need to do is take a round of antibiotics and I’m good! It’s not cancer. It doesn’t involve my GI tract. It probably won’t affect the rest of my life. I don’t have to worry about dying from this. Waking up with a drooping face one morning wouldn’t be easy, but…cancer. I thought about being young and having cancer.

That evening I added the local Light The Night walk date to my calendar and made a personal fundraising page with the suggested $100 goal. I thought about asking a few local businesses for support. I thought about how little this meant to me before, just another project at work, when it was impersonal.

And I thought more about cancer. I thought about my cousins and how different I would be if my mother died when I was 13. I thought about my friend Josh whose dad died of leukemia in March after years of illness. I thought of how short and fragile life can be. I also thought about how we, the skeptic/atheist movement, failed to gather even a third of the 25,000 petition signatures needed to try to help Alexander Aan in Indonesia. As of this writing, nonbelievers have raised $126,710.21 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and I’m not confident that we will hit the $500,000 mark. We’ll give money to help get the internet-driven Tesla museum off of the ground, but we don’t usually think about the individuals and families who are affected by cancer. I certainly didn’t. It didn’t hit me on a personal level. But I do miss talking with my dad; his loss is very fresh to me. I’m sure my cousins miss their dad who died a couple months ago. And although I didn’t understand it then, I now know that the slow death of their mother from cancer when they were just teenagers was difficult and deeply painful. I didn’t think about it before. I’m thinking about it now. Cancer has affected many people I care about. It’s more personal than I first thought. I don’t want to miss this opportunity—I want to do something to help.

I hope some of you want to help too.

You can find a Light The Night event in the U.S. or Canada here.

If there’s no team nearby, you can join the Foundation Beyond Belief Virtual Team.

You can also donate to specific teams or individuals here, or contribute to my fundraising page here.

Donations through the Foundation Beyond Belief teams are matched by the Stiefel Freethought Foundation.

Thank you for thinking about this, and thank you for doing what you can to help.


Debbie is keenly interested in secularism, skepticism, magic and deception, LGBTQ issues, language and perception, and general geekery. She works at the Center for Inquiry as director of outreach, director of African Americans for Humanism, and intro-doer for Point of Inquiry. You can find her on Twitter: @debgod.

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  1. I find this an incredibly moving post. There’s not much to say, other than that I make a monthly donation to the American Cancer Society for reasons very much like the ones given above.

  2. This is very touching and moving Debbie. My mother had breast cancer 11 years ago Dec. It was stage 3 when she caught it and according to my grandmother, who was still alive at the time, my mother was the first known case of breast cancer in the family. I found out that was not unusual. Luckily, she survived, but it was hard on me, her only child. My sons had a tough time of it too, because she was staying with during her surgery and part of her treatment. She’s a survivor, but I’ve become keenly aware of cancer in recent years. Suddenly, it’s like it affects everyone and no one is immune from being affected by it in some way.

    Until recently, after that thing with Planned Parenthood, I was involved with Komen, even buying things that gave to Komen. Not any more, for obvious reasons. Thanks for informing us about Light the Night. I’ll be looking into it.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

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