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Editor’s Note: On this Memorial Day, we remember Michael Scott Fetterman, who passed away at age 31 after a 20-month long battle with colon cancer.


My mom sometimes says “f*ck cancer” in a quiet voice as she embraces me, often after we’ve received bad news—and the vitriol that she directs against cancer in those quiet moments comes out hard and pure. She would hurt cancer if she could, and not just hurt it but bring it to death slowly and cruelly, as punishment for all the terrible harm that it’s caused for thousands of years, eating through bodies and families, murdering its victims indiscriminately.

I do understand her anger as I sit here, the cancer gradually replacing each healthy cell in my liver and spine and lungs with one of its own like some perverted Ship of Theseus. But I have to acknowledge that the cancer wishes me no harm. It doesn’t hate me and it hasn’t singled me out for death according to any particular criteria—in fact, I don’t in any respect fit the profile typical of bowel cancer victims. This certainly isn’t personal. I wonder then, if cancer—like the bear mauling the hiker, digging its claws through his back and clawing into his abdominal organs—is just another part of God’s beautiful creation.


Prior to the main events of Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab went on another whaling voyage where he encountered the White Whale for the first time one fateful night, and the dumb enormous horribly power and dangerous animal, lacking the higher agency enabled by God’s gift of human intellect, acting in dumbness, driven by instinct and hunger and fear—this Leviathan whose skin the sailors would try to fill with harpoons, strip off its outer coat, and render the blubber from the hulking mass of its enormous body—this creature, fearfully and wonderfully made, a brutal majestic beast of God’s creation, attacked Captain Ahab with the tremendous cave of its jaws and tore his leg off at the knee.

Then the Captain, with no more than the benefit of shipboard medicine, sinking into maniacal fanaticism as he sat in the terrible all-encompassing world of his terrible pain, comes to locate in the creature of Moby-Dick—or perhaps in the symbol that Moby-Dick becomes in the Captain’s shriveling and evermore monomaniacal mind, fixed now in place against the beast—a repository of all evil, a sea monster, the devil incarnate as a terrible creature who, in its cruel malice, singled him out for pain and suffering and dismemberment.

Starbuck, Ahab’s first mate on the vengeful voyage of the novel’s present action, has no qualms slaughtering the beast for profit—God gave us dominion over the fish of the sea after all, and what could be better stewardship, in light of the modern technological promises of the modernizing 19th century, than to subdue the Great Fish and behead him and then to boil his thick and fatty skin, always using the best modern machinery, until the whole watery world of the whaling voyage flowed with oil and blood and blubber and profit. But when this voyage was undertaken for personal reasons, rooted in maniacal thoughts of vendetta against God’s magnificent and powerful Leviathan, then perhaps the inquest itself was already evil at its outset.

When God humbled Job by speaking out of the storm, he tells his poor afflicted servant that any hope of subduing Leviathan, the great monster of the deep, is false hope: “any hope of capturing it will be disappointed.” Then God compares himself to Leviathan: “Who can stand before me?” It is here, Starbuck worries, that Ahab has raised his eyes to God and said, “I will do it. I will stand before you. I will stand against you and I will destroy your Whale.”


There are several critical differences that separate my chemotherapy from Ahab’s whale hunt. Most importantly, Ahab killing the White Whale will not necessarily have an impact on his physical form (except, perhaps, to damage his body further). His severed leg will not grow back, to any degree. My body, on the other hand, will see a reduction in tumor size while the chemotherapy works (although unfortunately we know in advance that the chemotherapy will eventually stop working, and then the cancer will run its course and turn me into a Ship of Theseus of Cancer).

Still, if Starbuck is right in his argument that a.) any unwilled natural violence is simply a part of God’s beautiful and violent creation and b.) the malicious destruction of God’s creation affronts not only the creation but also God himself, then when my mom says “f*ck cancer,” Starbuck would conclude that at least part of her hostility is directed at the God that both of us revere.

For obvious reasons, I am not comfortable with this conclusion. Perhaps it really is the case that all disease must be treated solely for the sober purposes of prolonging lives and improving their quality, and we must leave our fury at God’s feet, a kind of sin offering. If this is the case, then God forgive me and my family and all my loved ones for the endlessly plunging pool of rage that life forces us to dive down into when we contemplate the aberrant twisted up, f*cked up little globs of cells gathering together in masses of what I envision as lumpy oily veiny nasty clumps of tissue all over my dying body.


I’m often told that I look good. And truth be told, I feel good most of the time. Chemo melts me into a shivering sweaty pathetic lump of a person that only gets up from sleep in order to have painful convulsive and prolonged diarrhea. But otherwise I look and feel good when I’m not on chemo. I’m told by the internet that I won’t begin to resemble a stereotypical dying person until the month, weeks, or even days preceding my death. Until then, I have lots of energy to write poems about how I’m dying and whether certain attitudes toward death and dying amount to an indirect hatred of God.

I’m complaining as though I dislike my state of affairs, but in doing so I’m being disingenuous. In some ways, I’m living out the early retirement of a grownup adolescent. I play video games, read, cook; I take the long afternoon naps that my body needs these days. My body needs so much from me, and I try to be kind to it.

I’ve been watching all the movies I always thought I “ought to have seen.” For example, I finally got around to watching Tarkovsky’s Stalker. I’m still deciding for myself whether it amounts to three long and boring hours of philosophical rambling—maybe I can’t sufficiently relate to the anxieties surrounding desire and the satisfaction thereof experienced by Soviet men in the 1970s—but in any case the film does create a palpable heart-squeezing tension through the visual language it adopts, the horrible tattered greenery of the Zone full of strange industrial wreckage, the strange rippling mounds of sand in the building that contains the desire room. Perhaps I can relate after all, at least to whatever is communicated visually, the sense of slow-moving terror as we wait for the next strange and broken part of this fallen world to reveal itself to us.


I am in the Zone. The Zone is a very complex maze of traps, and unfortunately I have fallen into one. Tarkovsky grabs my heart and squeezes. I feel like I can’t breathe. I try hard to compartmentalize my anxiety and rage so I can enjoy the days I have left. Moby-Dick leaps his mountainous body out of the water, crashing boats, flinging harpooneers spinning through the sky, ripping Ahab’s leg off to leave a tattered butchery mess at the knee. My mom whispers “f*ck cancer” as she embraces me in the doorway.

God’s creation is beautiful and fallen, full of disease and pollution, oceans filled with plastic. Nevertheless, the whale is sinless. God can be seen in the creation if you look—he can be seen in the majestic size and mighty power of Leviathan, in the imposing powerful height of mountains, in deep lush valleys, in the beautiful arcing expanse of the sky, in art, in the rich complexity of the human soul, fashioned in God’s image and according to God’s likeness.

According to modern scientific consensus, this universe is expanding, and the rate of its expansion is increasing.

According to the first verse of the Gospel of John, Jesus Christ is the Logos.

Logos: untranslatable word, a divine wisdom and loving all-knowledge pre-existing time that unfurls toward redemption and perfection and renewal, the Logos entering time and unspooling within it, the world stitched together with love and the absolute omnipresence of God. The Logos opening out into the expanding universe, always expanding faster and faster. The Logos in the Big Bang, divine wisdom and power spreading itself outward into creation. The Logos in every star, in every black hole. The Logos in the redshift. The Logos in tidepools, in the empty space between quarks; the Logos in dust and ashes. The Logos in my weakening body, preparing a place for me in my Father’s house where there are many dwelling places. My mom whispers “f*ck cancer” as she embraces me in the doorway and I know what she means to say, in part, is the following:

The Lord bless you and keep you;

The Lord make his face to shine upon you

and be gracious to you;

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you

and give you peace.

Michael Scott Fetterman

Michael Scott Fetterman was an avid reader, a storyteller, a poet, a songwriter, and an exceptional guitarist. He received a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from New York University and a Juris Doctor from Columbia University. He leaves behind this reflection, along with other writings on life, faith, and our relationship with the world and each other.


  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks for this precious reflection. Cancer is not like the great whale. Cancer is a broken piece of creation, an instrument of evil and therefore to be fought against and even cursed. The “f**k cancer” reaction is in keeping with the spirit of the many Psalms that plead for deliverance from enemies, often in ways that make us uncomfortable. We don’t get our theology from the Psalms (which some seem to contradict Jesus’ command to love our enemies), but we do learn to pray with our true unfettered emotions. God wants that. Cancer is an enemy that we are not called to love. Here is my “cancer version” of Psalm 54:

    Save me, O God, by your name;
    Vindicate me by your might.
    Hear my prayer, O God;
    Listen to the words of my mouth.
    Cancer is attacking me;
    A ruthless disease seeks my life—
    A disease without regard for God.
    Surely God is my help;
    The Lord is the one who sustains me.
    Let evil recoil on the cancer that is attacking me;
    In your faithfulness destroy it.
    I will sacrifice a freewill offering to you;
    I will praise your name, O LORD, for it is good.
    For he has delivered me from all my troubles,
    And my eyes have looked in triumph on my cancer.

  • Jon Pott says:

    I’m sure that much remains for me to unpack, but this is remarkable.