Dear friends, family, and the kind strangers I’ve met along the way: Please stop praying for me. It’s only making it worse.
In April 2012, I went for an ordinary yearly physical and found that I was anemic. A colonoscopy later discovered a stage 2 cancerous tumor in my colon. A week later, it was surgically removed. This was followed by twelve rounds of chemotherapy administered through a Mediport placed in my chest. The treatment took over twenty-four weeks and removed me from employment for the rest of that year.
But the year 2013 started off great. I was back to physical health and back to work; the effects of chemo had worn off, and I was feeling fine. The year 2013 was about to close—Christmas and New Year celebrations were being planned—when in December, a follow-up CT scan discovered that a cyst on my liver previously thought to be benign had tripled in size and was actually cancerous. The original colon cancer had metastasized. Four weeks later, in January 2014, I went back under the blade and half my liver was removed. By that time, the tumor was five centimeters in size. Surgery was followed by eight rounds of chemotherapy (cut short so I could return to work to retain my medical benefits).
Since then, all my CT scans and blood work have shown that the cancer is gone. But there is always a chance a mutant cell or two still roams my bloodstream, looking for an organ to call home. So for the rest of my life, it’s testing, testing, testing to see if the aliens have landed. This isn’t easy to live with. It’s a great cause of anxiety; there’s never a day that passes without me thinking about it. In the words of Indiana Jones, “We walk from here.” Slow and steady. We shall run blood tests and scans every few months, until my time ends, to see if Darwin’s darling little dagger returns.
Throughout these past few years, friends, family, and strangers have wished me well. And many have said they are praying for me. Now, I’m not so big of a jerk that I would look them in the face or reply via social media and tell them they are wasting their time. I’m gracious and courteous enough to simply say “Thank you.” I know that what they mean is that they want the best for me, that they hope that everything turns out all right and that the cancer remains in remission. They wish me to go on to live a long and happy life.
I am not attuned to the rituals they practice to carry out their prayers. I have no idea if they take a few minutes every morning or evening to kneel on the floor and pray over their beds or just do it before a meal in classic Norman Rockwell fashion. I have no idea if they drive to work with the radio off and talk to God as if he were a passenger in their car. I’m also not up on whether they take a sacrament by breaking a wafer or consuming wine after said prayer, or if they just close their eyes in an easy chair and say, “God, please fix him.” I don’t know their methods. But what I do know is they tell me they are praying for me. And I know that they are wasting their time. It is of no help, and it has not been of any assistance in getting me to remission.
I never once considered praying myself. I never once raised my eyes to the sky and asked, “God, why me?” After all, why not me? How awful to even consider that the cancer be given to someone else or collected in the intestines of a levitical goat along with all the other transgressions of the sinful, to then be let loose to run into the wasteland. I relied, instead, on modern medicine. Why? Because prayer doesn’t work.
The “power of prayer” has been studied to its end point. None of those studies, I repeat none, has demonstrated any benefit to it. The largest study ever conducted of intercessory prayer (where one person is asking God to help another person) was conducted in 2006 and included 1.7 million prayers, cost about two and a half million dollars, and was carried out at several medical centers. The study included almost two thousand coronary-artery bypass surgery patients who were put into one of several groups. Some received prayers, some didn’t; some were told that they would, but they didn’t; and vice versa.
The outcome of the study was hardly what was expected. Where some thought the study would show that prayer improved patients’ conditions and others hypothesized that it would have no effect, what actually occurred was that those who thought they were the recipients of prayer did worse regarding recovery (this applied whether they actually received prayers or only thought they did). Speculation on why this occurred ranged from patients’ anxiety thinking that prayer was their last hope to (my personal suspicion) some patients stinting on following doctors’ orders because they thought God would intervene. Regardless, further research is needed to verify any of the hypotheses put forward to date. But the bottom line is that prayer doesn’t work. Worse, it hinders. We just aren’t sure why yet. Perhaps when you do engage in prayer, you’re interfering with God’s plan, and he isn’t very fond of that.
Yet even without the studies showing prayer doesn’t work, we can attest to its vast uselessness simply by looking through history. People have been getting sick as long as there have been people. I’m making an educated guess, of course. I have no documentation that goes back to the first Homo sapiens sapiens, but there never was a time when bacteria, parasites, viruses, and mutations weren’t things for the Homo line to deal with. The oldest fossils, dating to about 3.5 billion years ago, resemble bacteria. They came long before us. And these little buggers have been finding ways to inhabit their hosts for a long time. And mutations? Well, that’s the thing of evolution. You cannot understand the history of life without understanding (and accepting) that things mutate. Some mutations are beneficial but most are not: witness cancer.
Archaeologists have uncovered the graves of Neandertals who had been intentionally buried, in that the body was purposely placed into the ground and not covered by the proverbial sands of time. It remains unknown why Neandertals buried their dead. Was it for sanitary reasons, to keep the neighborhood clean? Or does this suggest that long before the written word, before Homo sapiens sapiens entered Europe, there was a developing belief system in an afterlife? What is evident from the archaeological record (grave goods such as flowers and food offerings) is that many thousands of years ago, a form of religion was being expressed—that is, a belief in a world transcending the material world. Was some kind of prayer said after a Neandertal perished? We’ll never know.
We’ll never know when prayer started. And I’m talking specifically about intercessory prayer. We have written records going back a few thousand years attesting to the practice of prayer, yet that speaks nothing of what people did (or how they did it) before the written word. Review the written record of Sumer and Egypt to see the pleas offered to their gods of that time. Yet I don’t have to go back several thousand years to demonstrate my point. Even without the studies showing the failure of prayer, we can deduce that prayer doesn’t work simply by using the past few hundred years as an example.
It is not and never has been due to prayer that people come through disease and affliction. If so, we should see historical survival rates equaling what we see now. Surely, when loved ones or friends fell ill in the year 1600 or 1700 or 1800, friends and family prayed for them. Yet history shows that many more people died from disease in the past than do today. How many people died from polio, measles, smallpox, and other diseases, not to mention what we’d today consider minor infections, for thousands of years, despite eyes raised to the heavens and sacrifices of animals? How many prayers went unanswered, ignored by whatever god was pleaded with? It is only in the age of modern medicine that we’re beating the little, nearly invisible creatures that get into our bodies. In combination with modern medicine, we also have the practices of hand-washing, vaccinations, clean drinking water, sanitation, and the like. These practices have allowed today’s humans to live longer than their ancestors. And again, it has nothing to do with prayer.
There are about three thousand gods recorded in human history. I suspect there have been more; we don’t know about them because they never made it to the written word or had a big enough following to compel lasting remembrance. There have also been countless intermediaries, such as Catholic saints and deceased ancestors, through whom people have prayed. Yet despite all of the deities, heroes, and saints, people did not survive disease and infection effectively until the age of modern medicine and modern preventive practices.
In his excellent study of cancer, my own affliction, Siddhartha Mukherjee states rather plainly that several decades ago, people who were diagnosed with cancer left the hospital only after they died. Nowadays, if their cancer is caught early enough, thanks to improved screening practices developed through decades of scientific research, they may get to leave alive and in a matter of days. Due to the continued diligence and research methods into what cancer is, how it operates, and what its weaknesses are, there is a greater chance of survival through the applications of radiation, chemotherapy, and other methods. (The cancer treatment administered to my father just ten years prior to my own was already somewhat outdated compared to the treatment I received.)
Yet despite the ineffectiveness of prayer, I thank those who have and continue to pray for me. It’s the thought that counts. And however anyone wishes to bid me good health and tidings, so be it.
But it’s at this point that I’d like to ask them to stop, and not just because I am in remission and don’t need the well-wishes and not because I’ve suddenly become that jerk. It’s because I’ve thought of a better response—more than “thank you.” But more on that later.
First, let us have a bit of fun and speculate that prayer doesn’t work because we’re trying to tell God that his plan is all wrong and he’s doing—albeit more silently and with more passive-aggressiveness—what he did when Job complained about his mistreatment. God isn’t responding to prayers because he knows better than you!
Perhaps cancer was part of God’s plan for me. I doubt that—but if so, your prayers are going against his design for me, which provides that I would be predisposed toward cancer, that I would then develop said cancer, and that it would spread. It was God’s choice to curse me from birth, to give me greater chances than normal of getting cancer. Genetic testing shows that I was born with a defect that predisposes me toward colon cancer (and certain other cancers) more than someone without the defect. It’s called Lynch Syndrome. But, again, I doubt this was all pre-planned by an intelligent designer. To the contrary, my defect is more verification that we are notcreated in any supreme being’s image. It’s more proof that we’re an ongoing experiment of survival, unguided by anything supernatural or divine but driven rather by what works through natural selection at that particular time and place.
So instead of prayer—which has been shown either to have no effect at all or to do more harm than good—I’d like my friends, family, and those following my condition to cease and desist. Instead, let’s do this:
Take a few minutes to go online or use the phone and make a donation to any scientific charity of your choice. It doesn’t have to be cancer research. Any scientific charity will do. And I’m not asking that you give a lot. Five dollars is sufficient. Instead of just feeling better because you said magic words, for the price of a coffee-house latte you will actually be doing something useful instead of getting nowhere.
Upon completing this task, you will:
- No longer be engaging in a wasteful ritual, eating up precious time. You can make that one-time donation, then be free to do something useful during those times you once wasted on prayer.
- Your five dollars (or more, if you choose) will benefit everyone. Not just me. The research will advance work leading to the betterment of all.
- You’ll actually get a response from the charity you choose. It might be a postcard or letter or e-mail of gratitude. Unlike with prayer, you’ll hear something back.
So, dear friends, family, and strangers who care, do keep the thoughts of kindness coming. But I’d rather my inbox fill with notes from you that show you helped fund the fight against Alzheimer’s—or cancer or diabetes—or supported keeping the oceans clean, learning more about human origins, or advancing interplanetary space travel. How cool would it be to know that there will be a payoff? Guaranteed. And in my name, too.
Benson, Herbert, et al. 2006. “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: A Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessory Prayer.” American Heart Journal 151, No. 4.
Rendu, William, et al. 2014. “Evidence Supporting an Intentional Neandertal Burial at La Chapelle-aux-Saints.” Journal of the PNAS 111, No.1.
Mukherjee, Siddhartha. 2010. The Emperor of All Maladies. New York: Scribner.
Campbell, Joseph. 1991. The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. New York: Penguin Arkana. Originally published 1959.