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Skeptical (A Pre-Deconversion Novella): Ch. 1 - Caleb's Cancer



****I wrote the following around the time I quit attending church. Not sure links still work and I admit there may be flaws in my calculations. Very long and verbose.****




This is a story, an example of probability, possibility and the delusions that many believe.


There is a family that goes to the church that I sometimes attend. I do not know them. Perhaps we have passed in the halls or the worship room. That’s about it though. They are believers, hardcore holy-rolling believers whose lives are fixated upon the Bible and raising up Christian warriors, the type who do their fighting in appropriately Christian settings and later on outside of abortion clinics and adult movie shops where real sin is rife.


Some time ago, their youngest child was diagnosed with brain cancer. Terrible, isn’t it? He was only 1 year old at the time, just beginning to talk. At first, they thought that a fall from a wagon was causing him to clutch his head and scream in pain. “It was just a bump.”, his older sister assured their parents. And so it was, for the screaming passed and he was normal for a while.


There was a pause in the story as they were telling it to a crowd of 500 or so at the church. See, they were giving a testimony, on stage. They were just a couple of average joes, really. Nothing special except for their deep faith in Christ and they were of the humble pious sort that loves doing things in the church, for the church, in the name of God...but doesn’t want to be singled out or held in esteem for doing any of it. Or so their words claim. Truthfully, they are as limelight hungry as any non-Christian, and if their faith is on display, they are absolutely gleeful behind their veil of piety.


Of course, talking about your child suffering and almost dying is a drag, no doubt. So pauses, tears and occasional awkward moments are bound to come about. They were bearing their raw, true selves to an audience of people who didn’t really know them. Sure, a few families were close, their prayer circle and Bible study buddies and the parents of the older childrens’ friends knew them...but the majority of the people there had just blankly dropped change into the Smith family fund jars when they were passed around every week. A few generous people had written checks or donated gift cards or helped buy groceries for the family...but honestly, the testimony WAS awkward, depressing, uncomfortable and unnecessary.


Anyway, the mother did most of the talking. She was sniffling and the crinkling of rough church quality tissue could be heard through her mic. She proceeded to tell us the story, the story of Caleb’s Cancer and the amazing hand of God. It was a 50 minute saga, with drama, comedy, and tragedy weaving their ways through the slurry of emotion. The story was heavy on hope, inspiration, and the Holy Spirit. Nothing less than a series of miracles and nothing more was needed to stake a claim to the reality and power of Christ, our Lord and Savior.



Caleb’s Cancer


The story began was an innocent prayer from the heart of a little boy. The little boy was named Danny and he lived a peaceful, suburban life with his parents and three younger sisters. The family was nothing great or remarkable. They lived in a sleepy subdivision on the edge of a small town. It was the sort of neighborhood where kids play street hockey and basketball on cul-de-sacs and parents don’t give much thought to letting youngsters ride their bikes to and fro.


Danny was an average kid, 8 years old with mouse brown hair and a gap between his two front teeth. He liked pizza, baseball and skateboarding. He didn’t like being the only boy in a house full of girls. He was the oldest of a bunch of stair step kids. He had a 6 year old sister, a 4 year old sister and a 3 year old sister. They were all of the angelic looking sort, with hair that fell in ringlets and perfect, pasty skin to show off their rosy little cheeks. Their parents dressed them in matching outfits most of the time and they all had cutesy modern girl names unlike his own common, old-fashioned name.


Their family was very Godly, total believers. Church was their life and Danny and his sister Sienna went a private Christian school in another town to drive home the point of their faith. Their parents proudly displayed signs for the school on their front lawn and didn’t allow anyone from the neighborhood to sleepover unless they were Christians. At home, Danny and his sisters weren’t allowed to watch much tv or play video games. It was a boring sort of life, but being a young child, Danny didn’t really understand that yet. All he knew was that tv time meant watching a dvd that his mother or father would select from their collection on the shelf. The stories were always about Jesus, God, or the Bible. Or they were about lessons that one learned from the bad things that happened to you when you disobeyed, broke a rule, were mean, etc.


Danny had always been told that a person should pray to God when they wanted or needed something because God always listens and Jesus loves you and the Spirit is with you. He didn’t really understand how God could listen to all the prayers of the world, how Jesus could love people if He didn’t live on earth or how the Spirit could always be with you. His friend Jamie had told him that there was a little winged creature that flew into his room whenever he had lost his tooth and left a dollar under his pillow. After Jamie had told his story, he’d shown Danny the crisp dollar. It had been all glittery and shiny and had smelled like strawberries, so obviously there were some things and some beings that just couldn’t be seen.


So he prayed. Every night and every morning and sometimes during the enforced 30 minute quiet time after dinner, he prayed. He prayed to God for a brother, he asked Jesus for a friend to grow up with, he asked the Spirit to guide his family, he told all three of them how lonely he was in a house full of girls. He prayed and prayed and one night before bed, his mother happened to see him praying. She heard his words about how much he wanted a brother, how he’d do anything to have one, how much he’d love his brother, and all of the things he’d teach him. Danny was sure that somehow, someway, God would make him a brother and send him down to earth just like he had done with his three bratty sisters.


She was in awe of his childish faith and so proud of it. “If we all prayed with such conviction, if we all just poured our hearts out to God and trusted Him so...but my husband and I just knew that we weren’t having any more kids. We already had 4 and the economy wasn’t in that great of shape. My husband had taken a pay cut at work We had to take the kids out of their private Christian school because we couldn’t afford the tuition, so I was homeschooling them....We just weren’t in the position to be having any more kids, really.”


A few months after hearing her son pray, she found herself pregnant. She was worried, scared. She had an immune condition and had been taking medication to prevent flare ups since her youngest daughter was a baby. The medication was not to be taken by pregnant women. The doctor took her off of the medicine immediately, but determined that she was almost through with her first trimester...what did that mean for the baby?


The rest of it was all water under the bridge and sure enough, Danny got his brother Caleb and the story was sure to end happily ever after....but if it had, I wouldn’t know about it. The story thus far wouldn’t have warranted a testimony in front of the church. It wouldn’t have made it past the editor of the church newsletter, let alone to the stage of the church in front of a crowd of 500 on a packed Sunday morning.


The little brother is called Caleb and the parents are sure that his very birth is somehow a miracle, that he is somehow chosen by God for big things. They didn’t plan on having another child and the fact that they had a boy, the brother that little Danny had prayed for all of the time. Well, surely that is God’s doing, right?


Anyone thinking logically at this point is saying “Sorry to burst your bubble there but the odds of you having a boy are pretty much 50/50, same as anyone else who gets pregnant...and seeing as how the two of you are in your early 30s, middle class, Christians who already have 4 healthy kids and are probably having unprotected sex on a regular basis. Tell me again how you getting pregnant and giving birth to a baby boy is such a miraculous event?”


Because your son prayed for it? Because you believed it to be unlikely? Because millions of people the world over have been praying for brothers and sons and to have children period at the exact same time that your oldest son was praying for a brother here in the Great Plains and God somehow drew Danny’s request out his barrel o’ requests while the others lingered for a while and some are still in there? I call bullshit. That’s you, your ego, elevating yourselves, your sons, your God, over everything, including common sense and logic. In essence, you are making what is a fairly common occurrence into something meaningful and God-related, when in fact it is not anything more than average and not worth making a fuss over in the least. It is YOU wanting to be seen as blessed, YOU wanting to be above average, YOU wanting to prove God to your fellow sheeple via a simple method. “Oh look! Danny prayed for a brother and we HAD a boy 2 years later and that’s how JESUS answers prayers!!!! *applause*


After the supposed miracle birth that answered their Danny’s prayers, there was an unremarkable year of nothing special. A busy life homeschooling 4 soldiers for the Lord with a baby on her hip and the “miracle” of her husband being restored to his previous high earning status after 2 years of living on the margins and him being temporarily laid off from his job. Whoo. A lot of people have been laid off or let go from their jobs over the years. A lot of companies have downsized. Sometimes these companies decide that they will hire people back, particularly if they are good at what they do or are very hard workers. So is it really THAT surprising that your husband’s job at a major corporation was restored? Especially considering that he has 5 young children and a stay at home wife, his former boss was probably like “I know that guy is going to show up every day! He’ll be one of my best workers because he can’t afford not to be, lolz!”


So following the fall from an errant wagon I mentioned earlier, Caleb’s family rushed him to the hospital. But not any hospital. No, they went straight to the best pediatric hospital in the area. Why? Because they could afford to go, that’s why. Most parents would take their little ones to the local hospital and hope for the best. Concussions, while not exactly an everyday childhood injury, are common enough in children that a local hospital can usually handle them. Unless there are accompanying injuries or the child is very ill, the local hospital is usually the only place that most children with concussions will be treated. The specialist pediatric hospital is reserved for very serious pediatric injuries and illnesses, as well as surgical procedures and conditions that require the care of a specialist. It isn’t a place that most parents, especially those that don’t live close by, would take their child for a suspected concussion.


Of course, this was portrayed as one of those “I just KNEW, as if the Lord himself was guiding me, that we NEEDED to go to Children’s Hospital!” the mother said in her best serious voice. However, to say such a thing is to be totally ignorant of how the medical process works for most Americans. And it is also quite pompous to parade the fact that your husband’s miracle job just happened to have excellent benefits. You just happened to have the means and ability to pass go and collect your $200 at Children’s Hospital when 100 other kids were probably sick or injured in the area that day and maybe even a few of them had cancer, yet God loves your little Caleb so much that he just HAD to be rushed to a specialist institution 30 miles away when there are 3 hospitals that are closer and 2 of them that are quite good.


Once you get to the hospital, your little Caleb was whisked to the CAT scan and had several other tests done within a few hours. Then, holy Jebus, a well-known neurologist who just happens to be there recognizes that your little boy has a very rare and aggressive form of brain cancer! This well-known neurologist, amazingly enough, has just transferred from a hospital that specializes in pediatric cancers. He sees just how precious your little boy is, just how distraught you are, and decides to phone in a few favors back at his old workplace. He gets your little boy a bed in the hospital even though most children who are referred there have to wait weeks, sometimes months, to get a spot. And a great deal of children who get cancer never get referred there at all. Caleb is special though and he deserves the best because God is on his side, right?


48 hours later, Caleb and Mommy are on their way to another city to the great specialist hospital. How did this happen? They claim that God intervened, but obviously it was the result of series of choices and chances. If Dad hadn’t gotten his job back, they wouldn’t have the best insurance. Without the insurance, they wouldn’t have been able to go to Children’s Hospital without a stack of referrals from their local hospital and/or regular doctors. There was no miracle for Caleb there. Without the insurance, they probably wouldn’t have pushed so hard to have him seen either. A great deal of parents whose children are on state-provided care aren’t afforded the opportunity to seek better treatment for their sick children. They are stuck with what the state provides, which in the state where we live means that you have to stay with the network the state has chosen for you. Going outside the network is a bureaucratic nightmare that usually means waiting for paperwork to be signed, faxed, approved and put in the system after several days of your child being ill. And if your child isn’t ill enough or their condition can be managed with medication or other treatments, then you aren’t even referred. At all.


But Caleb was different because the Lord had plans....err...Dad had the insurance and the means. More to the point, if their faith was so strong, then why did they have insurance at all? Surely they could just lay hands on him, pray over him, etc and God would heal him. Some sects of Christianity do believe in these principles and rely on them to treat all manners of conditions, such as Christian Scientists and a few other groups of dubious Christ-followers such as the church that this girl’s family belonged to. However, let us move on in the story. We all know that faith healing is a big sham. Most Christians have to lie to themselves to keep believing that it really works. Others just brush it off as an aside, one of those curious things that is clearly present in the Bible, words that were uttered by Christ, but utterly inapplicable to today’s world and therefore, ok to ignore.


Whatever the case, the next part of the story should warrant some thought. A doctor who just happens to be a neurologist that worked in a pediatric cancer hospital takes their son’s case as a personal mission and calls in some favors on their behalf is a big thing. In fact, maybe that is a miracle after all. Not so fast. The hospital that Caleb was in was one of the biggest and best in the area. Not only that, but it is the ONLY pediatric specialist hospital in the region. The nearest other specialist hospital is across the state and none of the surrounding states have one at all. Cases are air-lifted from up to 500 miles away to this particular hospital. Many of its doctors and surgeons graduated from the best medical schools in our region. This is not some podunk hospital. It is THE PREMIERE PEDIATRIC MEDICAL INSTITUTE IN THE AREA WHERE WE LIVE. Is it really so unbelievable that a highly trained neurologist with previous experience treating rare pediatric brain cancers would be on its staff? NO, it is not.


What you are left with is a series of probabilities, although small and quite in favor of Caleb getting treated, they still happened. Now, you can credit God or you can credit Buddha or you credit Spider-Man or whomever else you like, but none of them had anything to do with Caleb getting treatment. It was a series of choices, made by his parents and his doctors, combined with some improbable but not impossible circumstances that came about as the result of those choices. There was nothing special or different or blessed about any of them.


After Caleb and his mother landed in the new city and made their way to the new cancer hospital, Caleb started his treatment immediately. At first he didn’t respond to the treatments and continued to get sicker. Dad and the rest of the kids relocated to the new city to be closer to him. This meant that Dad had to quit his high-paying job with the awesome benefits....but wait, no, not really. His boss just happened to own a company in the area where they were now living. It didn’t pay as much, but he was able to keep his benefits. Well, things were hectic and crazy. The hospital didn’t have any housing available for such a large family, so the family had to go look for alternatives.


Lady Luck shined on them again, it seems. They were offered a rental home in the country through a business contact that his Dad had made. Whoo hoo. And then the Dad’s parents moved to the area to help them care for their other 4 kids, including homeschooling them. How wonderful! Then their church started sending them money to pay their bills. How nice! In the midst of all of this, they had “an unshakable, awesome faith in our Lord almighty!”. What this amounted to was the mom spending every waking moment next to her sick son, playing worship music non-stop and evangelizing in the hallways when he was well enough to be on his own. So we were treated to those tales, the wild, wacky and wonderful tales of a woman on fire for the Lord even the midst of The Greatest Test Ever.


Mommy dearest was shocked to learn that God had placed so many of his good Christian servants in the exact right place to care for her sick son. Apparently everyone from his personal nurses to the janitor who swept the hallway outside the door was a sing-song shiny happy Christ-lover who never stopped praying for little Caleb’s recovery. Even his primary doctor was astonished by his mother’s unshakeable, awesome faith in the midst of The Greatest Test Ever.


How surprising is it that almost everyone she encountered at the hospital was a Christian or someone claiming to be a Christian? I mean, it wouldn’t be that hard to figure out the likelihood of this scenario. How many people are in the US? Approximately 312 million. How many are Christians or claiming to be? About 75%. [ref] So...234 million people are Christians. Or 3 out every 4 people that she or I or you or any other American encounters in the US should theoretically be a practicing Christian or someone who claims to be a Christian. It’s not that hard to believe that nurses and other people who routinely work around sick children and probably watch a good portion of them suffer and possibly die would turn to the beautiful, shiny, feel-good Jesus to get them through the horror. I know it isn’t because I became a Christian in similar circumstances, working in a mental healthcare facility where many of the people were very ill or near death.


When Caleb’s mother said this, I almost lost it. I mean, the odds of her son’s caretakers not being Christians were pretty low anyway, and even those that aren’t practicing Christians or even Christians at all have to respect the religious beliefs of patients, parents, other staff, etc. So in the 1 out of 4 chances that the staff she encountered weren’t Christians, they probably listened to her out of sympathy, respect or because they really didn’t have much of a choice if they wanted to keep their jobs.


Little Caleb himself was stoked to listen to his favorite worship music and his family apparently thought that whipping out ye old iPhone to tape their sick little boy praising the Lord during a family sing-along was the paramount of God’s devotion to their cause. So much so that they posted it on several websites. With open comments so that others who suffer from their same patterns of delusional thinking can pat them on the back and gush about the inspiration of it all...


They played a clip of this video during their presentation. It basically boiled down to a plug for some forgettable Christian worship band singing one of those rah-rah praise songs that no one outside of the Christian fold gives a damn about. Lame. Anyway, God continued to move in their little boy’s life. He started to get better. A little girl moved in down the hall. She was 5 years old and had been battling cancer for 3 years. As Caleb’s mom got to know her, her mom opened up and said that she was battling the same rare form of cancer as Caleb. The two families formed a bond (even though the little girl’s family was not Christian.) The little girl would go to Caleb’s room and play games with him. His mom witnessed to the little girl’s mom and the two of them prayed that their children would get better.


After a period of time, the little girl grew sicker and sicker. Then she died. It was then that Caleb’s mom started talking about her beautiful little boy and how his life was such an inspiration to the dead girl’s family, about how Christ seemed to come to them through him in that desperate moment. My ass. Think about it. This family had a little girl that they loved and wanted to watch grow up, just as all parents do. Their little girl had been sick for a long time and each time they went to the hospital and she got better. This time, she didn’t get better. She died. And yet Caleb survived. Why? Was it beginners luck? After all, the little girl survived her first and second bouts with the cancer, so why not the third? So maybe it’s the same with Caleb. Maybe he was part of the group of kids who survive their battle with cancer because they get early treatment or better quality treatment or have stronger family units that are able to better care for their special medical needs. In the end, the survival rates for cancer are not linked to any special favoritism from God or Buddha or Spider-man. They are firmly linked to early interventions, quality care by knowledgeable doctors and nurses, and strong, financially able families who are able to care for their cancer-stricken children. Caleb’s Cancer story fits all three of these criteria, so it is not amazing or by the hand of God that he survived. It would have been against the odds if he had died. [ref] [ref]


If we take this statistics from the second reference and do the math, here are the odds.

Approximately 12,000 children are diagnosed with cancer each year in the US. Out of those 12,000 children, 1,300 of them will die from the disease. It is a terrible thing that those children die and it is also terrible that cancer is the leading cause of death for children ages 1-14 in the US. Their lives are not meaningless or disposable and they are more than just statistics. Doing the math, it looks like this: 1,300/12,000 = .108333333 or 11%. So let’s set the record straight. If your child is diagnosed with cancer in the US, they have an 89% chance of survival. Yes, you read that correctly: 89% of the children diagnosed with cancer each year in the US will live to tell us about it.


To further break this down, 23% of the children who diagnosed with cancer are diagnosed with brain tumors. This means that out of the 12,000 children who are diagnosed with cancer, 2,760 of them will be diagnosed with a cancer that affects their brain, most often as some sort of growth classified as a tumor. Now, that is quite a few kids...but let’s apply this calculation to find out how many children actually die from it each year: 0.7 children out of 100,000 die from brain tumors each year. So....that’s a very small percentage, almost too small to be statistically significant.


To put this in perspective, in 2010 there were approximately 74 million children in the US. Out of those 74 million, the leading cause of death was unintentional injury. Across the board, from ages 1-17, that is the leading cause of death for children here in the US of A. It’s not cancer. Although some children do die of cancer each year, the leading cause is unintentional injury. Car accidents. Sports injuries. Fires. Being left in a hot car. Drinking poison. Falling out of windows. Getting caught in gunfire during a drive-by shooting. The number two cause of death for children ages 1-4 is congenital deformities. Or deadly genetic conditions. Whichever you prefer. Homicide is number 3. Malignant neoplasms (cancers) are number 4. How many children between the ages of 1 and 4 died in 2010 from cancers according to the CDC? [ref]


A whopping 346! Tragic, to be sure, and my cold dead heart goes out to them all. But do the math here. 346 children between 1-4 die of cancer in the US, 346 out of the 12,333,333* children in that age group. As a percentage, that would be 0.00002805405%. Not negligible, but not terribly likely either. Think about it this way....would you refuse to go outside in a rainstorm because of lightning? No? Only 11% of kids who were were diagnosed with cancer die from it. Of those children, 346 were between the ages of 1-4. So 346/1300=27%. Terrible. So if your child is diagnosed with cancer AND they are between the ages of 1-4, 3 out of 4 will live. Only 1 out of 4 will die from it. 12,000 children get cancer each year and roughly 23% of them will be diagnosed as brain cancers. Let’s be generous and round that up to 25% of ¼. So 1 out of 4 will have brain cancer. ¼ of 12,000 is 3,000. 3,000 divided by 18 (years considered childhood) is 166.6666 or 167 children of each year of age. 1-4 is 3 years so 3x167 is 500. 500 children between the ages of 1-4 will be diagnosed with brain cancer. Out of those children, .7 out of 100,000 will die from it. Sad, yes. But in real terms, that is 0.000007% or .0035 children. Well, let’s say that 1 child in this age group is likely to die from it. It is actually deadlier for children in 5-9 age group, but if these statistics are to be trusted, then only 7 children between the ages 0-19 die from it each year. It is MUCH more likely that your child will be diagnosed with ANY type of brain cancer AND LIVE than it is that they will die from it. Even if we assume that the form of cancer that Caleb had was very rare and very deadly and that 11% of all children who had it would die from it....that would still mean that a very small number of children would die from it. Hell, even a 100% death rate from this cancer would statistically miniscule and a 100% death rate means certain death, with no room for miracles...such as being born without a heart or having a tumor that causes your brain to explode from within your skull and ooze out of your facial orifices.


I’m not a mathematician and I admit, I may have made errors in my calculations. However, even if I did, this doesn’t negate the earlier evidence of that 89% of the children who are diagnosed with cancer don’t die from it in the US. Some cancers might be more deadly than others. Brain cancer is especially deadly to older children (ages 5-9), but most younger children (ages 1-4) don’t die from it. [ref]


So where is the miracle here? Upper middle class white American baby is diagnosed with cancer, receives excellent treatment from day one, and has an amazing family who is financially and physically able to care for him and see him through the crisis? Is that it? Obviously not. But that is what happened and there is nothing miraculous about it. Now, if Caleb had not received prompt treatment or the treatment he had received was mediocre or poor, or if his family had been absolutely broken, either financially or personally....well, then we’d be entering miracle territory. Even more miraculous would have been if he had been born in Africa or India or some other far-flung locale and had managed survive his bout with cancer in a primitive hospital without even the most basic medical care. Or if he had managed to survive in the US without any medical intervention at all, as he would have done if his parents were Christian Scientists or members of some other Christian cult that eschews traditional medicine and relies on prayer, faith healing, or what have you. An even greater miracle would have been if he had survived his bout with cancer as Christian Scientist in some third world country.


The greatest miracles of all? If God himself had reached down and removed the tumor from Caleb’s brain during his stay in the hospital, no treatment required. Or if God had kept Caleb from developing cancer at all. Or maybe, just maybe, if God had not invented cancer and allowed it in the world at all! That would be nice. Or he could remove the blight of cancer from the Earth. I mean, He IS God, right? All-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful, awesome, amazing, wondrous, loving G-O-D. He can do anything, everything, or nothing at all. And guess what folks? He is not doing anything about cancer. He never has and He never will and He isn’t going to do anything just because you ask Him to do something.


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