I remember vividly how awkward it was to carry on a “normal” conversation with people when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. People did not look at me the same way. Some stared at my breasts. Yes, it’s true. It was like they were trying to see if I was lopsided, or maybe they thought if they stared hard enough they could visualize my cancer. I don’t know. All I know it was weird. Some people had that pitiful, sorrowful look that was morbidly accentuated by their use of low, mournful tones when they talked to me. To me it sounded like they had already written me off. The worst though, were the ones who totally ignored me, or would have little contact with me. Maybe they thought they were in danger of catching cancer from me. It was even more hurtful when they went out of their way to avoid me…even in church.
I have since learned that all of these reactions from people is very normal. In fact, in my experience, very few people know exactly what is the right thing to say or do when they learn their friend, colleague, or even a family member has a serious disease. They are desperate to help but don’t know where to start. They may be so worried about offending by saying the wrong thing that they say nothing at all.
Sadly, I have seen some marriages fall apart because the spouse has no idea how to comfort and minister to their spouse during a health crisis. I have seen some friendships wither, because they just do not know what to say or do in response to their friend’s diagnosis. Some people with a serious illness have walked away from God, angry with Him for allowing this to happen to them in the first place, and then becoming disillusioned because they demanded His healing and didn’t get it.
On the flip side, a health crisis can also bring about the very best in people. In my case, I had an incredibly supportive family and church family. Yes, there were some awkward moments when I talked with some people after my diagnosis, but I learned to forgive the careless comments, the uncomfortable stares, and I made a point of verbalizing my needs to those who wanted to minister to me in practical ways. I did not blame God for allowing this to happen to me. On the contrary, my faith-walk was strengthened through the battle, and I was prepared to accept whatever His Will was for me. Yes, that even meant coming to terms with the possibility I might die.
Over the last few months we have been praying for several friends who are battling cancer in some form or other, most recently the granddaughter of a friend of mine. Jasmine is only thirteen and will be in hospital for six months undergoing chemotherapy treatments for leukemia. She is a fighter! She has an incredible support system which is awesome. Most of her family and friends are Christ Followers who know that God is in control! Prayers are lifted up daily for her and her family, and people are responding practically by showering the family with meals, encouraging words, and a GoFundMe page that has raised over $10,000 to help with the family’s finances during this time.
Still, many people are at a loss how to respond, what to say, what to pray, or what to do when someone they know is going through a serious illness. Having gone through cancer myself, I feel somewhat qualified to give some advice on what words you can say, write, share, or specific, practical actions you can take that will bring comfort to a person (and their family) during a time of intense struggle.
1. It is always appropriate to write or tell them that you are praying for them and ask them for specific prayer requests. Then pray! Don’t just say you’ll pray, do it!
2. It is appropriate to say that you are there for them if they need anything. Again, if you say you are there for them, be there! It means putting your money where your mouth is. Don’t say they can call on you if they need anything and then not respond when they actually call.
3. Don’t hesitate to acknowledge that what they are going through is hard. Avoiding the elephant in the room is not necessary. They need to know that in spite of this difficult journey ahead for them, you are with them every step of the way.
4. As they battle, acknowledge their strength, fortitude, courage and tenacity. Send Scripture but make sure it’s appropriate for the situation. Context is king here too.
5. Rejoice with them over small victories won. (On the day of my last chemo treatment, I came home and found a huge poster taped to my front door with the words: “Yay! You did it!” One of my friends at church had marked that milestone for me in a way I still remember fondly to this day.)
6. Don’t stop praying, writing, and encouraging a person even after the battle may be won or over. There is much fear and trepidation after a cancer diagnosis. I still have a measure of anxiety whenever I have a doctor’s appointment or I have a blood test. I also know from experience that families who have lost a loved one to illness, to old age, or to accident still grieve years later. Remember them in prayer! Acknowledge the tough “anniversaries”, and let them know you care.
7. Acknowledge that God is Sovereign. We may not understand His plan and purpose in His allowing illness, trials, or struggle to affect our lives, but don’t ever question His enduring love for us.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18 “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”