Three days before my wife Ami z”l died of traumatic brain injury, I received big news: my biopsy had come up clean. At one point, as we rushed to the hospital to be at Ami’s bedside for her final hours, my daughter Dana turned to me and said: “Good day not to have cancer, Dad.”
My father, Jack z”l, died of lung cancer. Age 63. My cousin Laura z”l died of ovarian cancer. Age 41. Cousin Marty z”l died of pancreatic cancer. Age 69. My dear friend Larry z”l died of brain cancer. Age 50.
So when a Facebook friend posted ‘Fxck Cancer’ as her status, my reaction was to say out loud: “Amen.”
What an odd reaction to an angry and violent phrase. “Amen,” as if ‘Fxck Cancer’ is a prayer.
Perhaps it is.
On a whim, I googled the phrase. It turns out that F Cancer is a thriving, active and innovative charity focused on encouraging young adults to teach their parents about early detection. Founder Yael Cohen told Forbes Magazine that she wanted to “flip the switch on how we think about cancer – from something we wait to get and pray for a cure, to something we’re actively looking for and finding when it’s most curable.”
The explanation of their name offers insight into the holiness of the phrase ‘Fxck Cancer.’ From the F Cancer website:
Because it’s what everyone’s thinking.
It’s a head-in-your-hands moment. It’s not sexual or violent; it’s defeated and defiant. Using these two words together gives cancer the visceral response it deserves. Taking such a private word into the public space is powerful. If there’s ever a time to use ‘Fxck,’ it’s now.”
Used appropriately, expletives can represent important gut emotions, but can we use expletives in our prayers? I recently wrote two prayers for victims of sexual abuse by a loved one including the word ‘damn.’ Both prayers begin like this:
I loved you.
Damn, I loved you.”
The second sentence – “Damn, I loved you” – captures the depth of the violation. The rest of the prayer contrasts the emotional and spiritual damage caused by the abuse with the need for God’s healing. Pushing the boundaries of language can be an important tool in eliciting emotion, but is it appropriate to use the a word like ‘damn’ in prayer?
I’ve also written a piece called “Cursing toward Heaven,” in which the F bomb plays a central role, being used again and again to express the depth of pain and outrage, offering it as testimony and witness to God. It’s a prayer I may never publish. I wonder: is it an appropriate use of language in prayer? I believe that God can handle the full power of my grief and my suffering. The Source of Compassion wants to hear my pain. Yet, part of me hesitates. We don’t traditionally speak to God with these words.
My own biopsies came as a result of aggressive early detection, just as Ms. Cohen advocates. Still, I challenge her comment minimizing the importance of prayer. Praying for a cure – both for specific individuals with the disease and for the medical research to find treatments – is a vital part of addressing the depression, helplessness and fear that comes with the diagnosis. Still, I get her point: let’s F Cancer, let’s F Cancer with early diagnosis and treatment.
Ms. Cohen has written a prayer. A simple and powerful two-word prayer and call to action.
Fxck Cancer. Amen, indeed.
My new book, Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing, includes 14 prayers for use along the cancer journey, touching milestones from fear to remission, from treatment to recurrence. Here, however, I offer another prayer from that book called “For Medical Science.” In case you were wondering, there are no expletives in this book.
God of wisdom,
We give thanks for the fruits of medical science,
The gifts of health and healing
That have saved millions of people:
From immunization to chemotherapy,
From diagnostics to surgery.
You gave us the tools of science and research,
Intelligence and curiosity,
Challenging us to be Your partner
In bringing new medications and remedies,
Technologies and procedures,
Into the world.
The needs are great.
Diseases and conditions still plague
The lives of our families,
Our brothers and sisters,
Nations and communities,
Young and old.
God of love,
Bless medical scientists and researchers with
Insight and skill,
Dedication and fortitude,
So that their work yields knowledge and understanding
Leading to new treatments and cures,
Speedily, in our day.
Grant medical science the wisdom to use these gifts wisely
In service to the highest ideals of humankind.
Rock of Ages,
Bring an end to pain and suffering,
So that all may know
Your compassion and Your grace.
Blessed are You,
God of health and healing.