ONCE MY MOTHER’S CANCER treatment began and word spread to our friends and family, the faith talk started.

“People keep telling me they’re praying for me, and I don’t know what to say,” my mom told me one night over the phone. “I just want to tell them to save their energy.”

Neither of us believed in the power of prayer, or God, really, for that matter. “Maybe it makes them feel better,” I offered. Even so, was it really fair that my mother was expected to spend these nerve-wracking months playing along with other people’s beliefs, just to salve their nerves? It was her cancer.

People who didn’t know better encouraged me to put my mother’s fate in God’s hands. I’d give a grim look and change the subject, but I also thought back to a time in my youth when I’d been a believer, when exchanging sentiments like this had felt like the heart of goodwill.

My faith unraveled during college. I’d been the girl who planned to be a minister. Yet I came home one summer, heart racing, ashamed, bracing myself to tell my mother—who had taken me with her to church every Sunday—that I no longer wanted to attend. That maybe I didn’t believe in Jesus.

She studied me briefly and said, “Good. I never believed any of it anyway.” I stared at her aghast, and she laughed. She never went back to church.

For years after that, our disbelief felt like a strange mother-daughter pact. We were Midwesterners surrounded by believers. We took to exchanging looks at funerals, as ministers asserted that our dearly departed were now singing with angels. But we didn’t broadcast our disbelief. While Americans have made strides in religious tolerance, studies still chart a stigma and general distrust of atheists.

When the cancer struck, my mother’s body shrank by fractions. But she suffered the indignities of colon cancer—the constant sickness, the radiation burns, all of it—with a sturdy stoicism born of deep reserves.

My father did the lion’s share of caretaking. I lived too far away to be of daily use, so I read everything I could—studies about nutrition and cancer, going swimming with a colostomy bag. On the daily calls, her voice seemed to get weaker and weaker. I remembered when I had been rankled by news of expanded faith-based medical care under the Affordable Care Act. Why couldn’t those resources go directly toward helping people like my mother?

I set myself the task of fundraising for her medical bills. With the skyrocketing cost of the treatments, my family simply couldn’t keep up. Of course, when she needed an expensive operation, it was a Catholic-affiliated hospital in Ohio that saved her—a place with a charitable mission to treat everyone, even those who could not afford it.

She made it through treatment and came out of surgery showing her mortality. Everything about her was parched, abused by cancer, and it wasn’t until much later that the surgeon would assure us the cancer was gone.

While she recovered, a chaplain asked if my mother would like it if she prayed for her. My mother declined. “Well, I’d like to pray for you,” the chaplain said, and earnestly began to intone her words, eyes closed.

Mom and I looked at each other uncomfortably. She seemed so vulnerable at that moment. Wouldn’t the most charitable act be allowing her to mend as she wished? Does what this chaplain believes matter more than what my mother doesn’t? After all the probing, the poisoning of her body, the cutting and rearranging of her organs, her basic convictions seemed in for one last jab.

The chaplain left the room after her final Amen. My mother’s eyes wandered to the crucifix on the wall. She said, “They have crosses everywhere here.”

I didn’t know what to do, so I joked stupidly, “It’s to keep the vampires away.”

She laughed. It was the first time she’d laughed in a couple of days, and in our irreverence, as a little mischief returned to her eyes, I saw life coming back. I saw signs cancer might really be defeated. And there, in her, I found plenty to believe in.