The “C” word kept appearing as I was reading my church’s prayer list this week. Name after name — some I knew, others I didn’t — accompanied by details of type and stage, awaiting surgery or undergoing chemo, young, old, rich, poor, whatever.
Cancer excludes no one. It comes without warning, steals quality of life, disrupts finances, devastates family, and dishes out immeasurable grief. Often we are so stunned, overwhelmed in our grief and shock, we don’t know what to say or how to say it. Our words can wound instead of help. Good intentions sometimes appear to be insensitive, and our efforts can be ineffective altogether.
I had the opportunity to sit and talk with some friends about their battles against cancer. Some are still fighting, persevering and hanging on through countless chemo treatments, medicals bills or a frightening prognosis. Others have received successful cancer treatments and the relief that comes with the word remission.
They shared countless, sweet stories of individuals who have helped and loved them through their cancer battles. But there was something they were more hesitant to share. There were things they wished people knew about cancer, needs they didn’t know how to ask for, things they would prefer nobody ever said. As I listened and wrote, I was stunned by their similar comments despite having very different cancer journeys.
Here are seven things they all said they’d like you to know — for whomever it is you’re helping through the cancer battle.
1. Stay in the game for the entire season.
Cancer is not a one-and-done event. It is long term. Everyone I talked to said they were blessed tremendously with meals, gift cards, prayer and encouragement from their churches, friends and acquaintances, especially in the first three months after the diagnosis.
But when the shock of the initial crisis faded, so did the help. Cancer doesn’t go away so quickly. Pace yourself — the debilitating treatment can last months, and for some, even years.
2. When you’re not sure, keep it simple.
Sometimes well intentioned people say foolish or insensitive things because they don’t know what to say. My friends shared that the most encouraging words spoken to them were remarkably simple: “We love you. We are praying for you.”
Follow their status updates and read their prayer letters or blogs so you are aware of appointments and specific needs, and send encouragement accordingly. Simply saying, “I saw you got good news on Thursday! I’m still praying for you, friend!” speaks volumes, showing you care for them and are invested in their cancer journey.
3. Skip the gory details.
One of the most frustrating things for those fighting cancer is when someone tries to relate and hijacks the conversation with, “My great aunt had ____ cancer and she blah blah blah.” Or, “My step-dad had the same thing, and he had three rounds of chemo and fought hard but passed away a few years ago.” Those details are rarely, if ever, helpful. Stories about someone you know who lost the battle are flat out awkward, and stories about someone you know who recovered can make the sufferer feel you are minimizing their current hardship. Don’t try to relate unless you’ve actually had cancer.
4. Leave the advice to the experts.
There are over 86,000 different types of cancer and multiple chemotherapy blends. Assuming that all cancers and chemos are similar is a common mistake. Everyone has a different cancer story. It’s like childbirth — all stories are different, reactions to medications vary, and the effect on the body is unique to the individual and the aggressiveness of the cancer. Cancer patients are often in medical information overload. If they don’t ask for your advice, don’t give it.
5. Listen. Really listen.
Cancer is hard, and it can test the faith of even strong believers. It causes them to ask hard questions and even have moments of hopelessness and despair. Let them be real. Allow them to voice fear, frustration and wonder about God’s plan. This kind of honesty is all over the Psalms. They are full of David expressing such feelings. Oh, and quoting, “Do not be anxious about anything…” isn’t nearly as helpful as reminding them that Jesus is walking through it with them. When they are fearful or in pain, He best understands suffering.
6. Offer to help in specific ways.
I was intrigued when I was first told this. But as it was explained, I realized we are tragically missing the point. When you say, “If you need anything, let me know,” most cancer patients simply aren’t going to let you know.
If you really want to help, don’t be vague. Offer to do something specific, like taking care of their lawn, setting up a meal train for dinners, taking their kids out for a special activity, arranging a time to help with housework (or paying for a one-time cleaning service), etc. The needs of individuals vary. Ask them where they need help, and do it. Don’t wait for them to call. They won’t.
7. Love and support the family.
Cancer doesn’t just affect the patient. It impacts the spouse and their children. Seeing someone you love dearly being ravished by a disease like cancer is one of the hardest things in the world. It’s easy to get wrapped up in hospital visits, while forgetting that sometimes spouses and kids simply need a friend to sit with them in the waiting room. Or someone to invite them to coffee and lend an ear. When a patient knows the emotional and spiritual needs of their family are taken care of, their worries are minimized and they feel less like a burden.