Have you ever wondered what to say or what not to say to someone with cancer? In this post, as well as parts two and three, I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned through my experience as a caregiver for someone with cancer, and through my own personal battle.
No one likes nor wants a diagnosis of cancer. Just the word makes us uncomfortable. Worse, many are uncomfortable around those who have been given the diagnosis. You know people with this diagnosis right now.
Parallels between Job’s friends in the Bible and Friends of cancer patients
I recently had the opportunity to observe the interaction between several cancer patients and their companions. As I watched those around me, it was like seeing the book of Job come to life. If you don’t recall or haven’t read Job, after a series of devastating losses, including wealth, the death of his children, and his own health, several of Job’s friends come to visit. The middle part of the book is devoted to the speculations each friend 000offered as to the cause of Job’s trials, and what Job should do about it.
What I witnessed at the clinic matched many of the words and attitudes Job’s friends offered to him. Like the words of Job’s friends, what I heard was certainly well intended, but vastly missed the mark.
What not to say to someone with cancer – conversation examples
1) One patient’s family cried while friends quietly tried to console.
- Job’s friends “sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights. No one said a word to Job, for they saw that his suffering was too great for words” (Job 2:13).
2) Another patient sat silently mopping up tears while a “friend” shared his philosophy of how the patient’s lifestyle and diet caused the disease he was now battling.
- Friend: “Your children must have sinned against him, so their punishment is well deserved.” (Job 8:4)
- Friend: “Listen! God is doubtless punishing you far less than you deserve!” (Job 11:6)
- Friend: “No, it’s because of your wickedness!…You must have lent money to your friend and demanded clothing as security…You must have refused water for the thirsty and food for the hungry…You probably think the land belongs to the powerful…You must have sent widows away empty-handed…” (Job 22:3-11) \
- Job: “One should be kind to a fainting friend, but you accuse me without any fear of the Almighty…Do you think your words are convincing when you disregard my cry of desperation?…Stop assuming my guilt, for I have done no wrong.” (Job 6:14, 26, 29).
3) Another patient received treatment while his companion offered her opinion on alternative cures she had heard about.
- Friend: “If only you would prepare your heart and lift up your hands to him in prayer! Get rid of your sins, and leave all iniquity behind you. Then your face will brighten with innocence. You will be strong and free of fear” (Job 11:13-15).
- Job: “How long will you torture me? How long will you try to crush me with your words?” (Job 19:2).
4) Another woman was getting chemotherapy while a “friend” was telling her horror stories of others who were inoperable or died despite treatment.
- Job: “People who are at ease mock those in trouble. They give a push to people who are stumbling” (Job 12:5).
That “friend” not only negatively influenced her friend, the patient (who cried), but also those of us sitting in the same room! It was so upsetting to me that I put on headphones for a while to collect myself and pray for peace of mind for myself and the others there.
What I heard that day in the clinic parallels guilt and shame-inducing comments directed at my husband and me, as well as at some of our friends who are also on the cancer journey.
One friend recently shared an upsetting text she received from a “friend” on the eve before her husband’s surgery shaming them for their choice of treatments. It started like this…
“Having spent over 30 years studying nutrition, health, fitness etc., including cancer ‘treatment,’ watching/knowing people who have gone through this…, I am praying God leads you to do what He wants you to do…not what the doctors say.
And continued: … They (doctors) know nothing else, and what they know is that chemotherapy/surgery does little. Miracles have occurred, but the doctors didn’t bring it about, God did…. Eating/drinking what God created that kills cancer is amazingly effective. There are many people opting out of boosting Big Pharma’s profits, having realized that the cancer business is a huge scam. The folks who opt for the natural route know they are living with cancer until Jesus calls them home and… suffer far less than going through surgery/chemotherapy. …. I know maybe I am the only one not placating you with positive notes of encouragement, but Heaven awaits us, and THAT is our next stop.
She ended: … Cancer treatment is toxic. Please realize that many folks live longer, with less pain/discomfort, doing no surgery or chemo… I do not remember which Christian said this, but he admonished every Christian to hold onto this life loosely. We are not our own…. And remember what that great theologian, Billy Joel said, “Only the good die young.” Hugs, prayers, and love.”
My friend responded:
“I would like to remind you that my husband IS A doctor. He also has an advanced degree in chemistry and has studied extensively how nutrition and the chemistry of the body work together. We have chosen to pursue this course of treatment and feel led by God to do so. All miracles come from God and many come through doctors’ hands. Your words to me on the night before my husband’s surgery are incredibly insensitive and lack the love and compassion that a Christ follower is supposed to extend to others. I am extremely upset (as are my daughters) that you would send this to me unsolicited.”
The “friend’s” response: “Love is always honest. Praying for you.”
Really?!? It sure doesn’t come across that way, either the love or the honesty.
I have received many such messages, most from people who don’t know me well, ranging from berating me and my husband for what they assume to be our lifestyle or diet, to telling us the “be all to end all” cure:
“I am so sorry for your situation and continue to pray. I am angry and believe it is criminal that information is being held back from the public on cancer treatment for monetary gain. Mostly big pharma. If you had a cure would you not share? Please, look at the following videos…”
“… have you considered medical marijuana? It will ease so many symptoms and let you rest. Please give it consideration…”
“I’m going to step out and be really bold right now… Traditional medicine does not have the answers when it comes to all diseases, especially in the area of cancer. I mean no judgment or disrespect. I believe healing from cancer by going the way of toxic chemicals is a very hard journey…I wish you would look into a non-conventional way to redeem your health. I believe it is the Lord’s way. The Lord wants that for you. … if you don’t change some things in your life, you potentially will just bring the cancer back. I believe it is going to be hard to be healed by putting toxic chemicals in your body. But I believe by changing your diet, what you put on your body in the way of cosmetics, removing all chemical plug-ins, never use Febreze, change the detergent you use, etc. you can be healed and you will not be suffering like you are now…” This one was clearly about what this person believed, without any interest in finding out what I believed, or how God has led me.
So many are quick to offer a specific answer, so few are willing to pray that God grant wisdom and insight necessary to make the appropriate decisions to those going through the ordeal. Personally, that’s the first place I want to turn.
For the cancer patient, if you have been given a cancer diagnosis, I am so sorry. It’s a terrible disease. I choose to look at cancer as a little “c,” but Christ is the Big “C” and cancer has to bow at the name of Jesus Christ. I would encourage you to do your research, and ask lots of questions. Guard your heart and your mind and seek the Lord’s wisdom for your situation. You might find these three posts comforting as you face this journey:
Prayer for friends of cancer patients
May I pray for you?
Father, cancer is an evil disease. We know that it is your desire that we would prosper and be in health even as our soul prospers. Father, we seek you for your wisdom and discernment for what to do in each individual situation. Father, where there is bitterness, resentment, and unforgiveness, let us release that to you. Let us live in your peace despite our situations. Help us to be good, faithful, supportive friends to those who are hurting and in pain. Let us offer the hope we have found in you. Guide our words and our actions. May they come from a heart of love and compassion. In Jesus’s name I pray, Amen.
Because of Him, #HopePrevails!
- Practical Grace – How to Not Be a Friend to Someone With Cancer (Part 1)
- Practical Grace: What Not To Say to Someone with Cancer (Part 2)
- How To Support Someone with Cance
- 10 Lessons Learned After Being Diagnosed with Cancer