Inspiring Cancer Patients and their Families through their Journey:
Interview with Karen Tripp, Founder of Cancer Companions By Sarah Guldalian
“It was so hard and such a shock,” says Karen. “I was in my early 20s and just had my first child. I had thought all of this was behind us.”
Karen’s step-mother, Anne, had previously been diagnosed with cancer. In fact, she had gone through treatment and been thought to be in remission. However, when Karen learned of a recurrence, she describes feeling an insatiable hole where support was needed.
“My family was in Florida; and I was in Chicago with my husband and newborn baby. It was this intersection of incredible joy with my first child then this incredible grief. I didn’t have any clue of how to support [my step-mom] during her treatments or how to cope with my dad’s grief.” Then, only five months after learning of the reoccurrence, Anne was gone.
According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 1.7 million new cancer cases were documented for 2014 in the United States. This does not even include skin cancers. Imagine the number of families impacted by these cases and these lives.
Karen describes how the loss of her step-mother impacted her family.
“It was really hard. She had a pivotal role with my father and my sister. She had been a very strong mother figure to my sister and she struggled a very strong loss… And my father has never remarried.”
Karen Tripp went on to be a License Marriage and Family Therapist. In her practice, she interacted with cancer patients, survivors and their families weekly – people who were in a cancer journey, experiencing some of the pains her family had.
From these therapy sessions and from her own personal loss, Tripp came to believe that, when people enter times of struggle, they come to pivotal points spiritually.
“They will either draw closer to God or further away. Cancer is definitely one of those struggles. The question becomes, ‘As we’re going through the struggle, are we going to turn towards God or from Him?” Karen describes the spiritual environment that many patients are struggling with.
“Most are not shaking their fist at God,” says Tripp. “They are confused and frustrated, not sure what He’s up to. So they sort of drift from him. They go to church less. They read their Bible less. They pray less.” In fact, this concern for their spiritual dilemma inspired Trip to write a book called, God is Bigger than your Cancer in 2008.
“The book gives them the focus of God right in their face as they’re going through their cancer struggle; and they will draw closer to Him.”
Once Karen became a recognized author for God is Bigger than your Cancer, she began receiving requests to speak at cancer support communities. Her very first speaking engagement was a success with a very high turnout. Quickly, she was approached about starting a Christian support group.
For three years, Tripp traveled her now home-city, St. Louis, leading Christian cancer support groups in churches across the metro, leading each group through seven weeks.
“They had given me a curriculum; but after three years, I started writing my own curriculum from the folks with cancer I was meeting. I was learning a lot,” says Tripp.
“One of the things I was learning was that this process wasn’t very effective. I would move on after seven weeks and the members of the group were left with no one to support them. No one in those churches were supporting them; and, I realized someone needed to teach them how to do that. That is when I founded Cancer Companions.”
Cancer Companions is an organization that provides training and curriculum for volunteers to lead Christian cancer support groups or to meet with people struggling with cancer one-to-one. 330 volunteers are leading this movement called Cancer Companions. Their mission is to equip, train and support caring individuals to provide safe, supportive environments for cancer families to draw closer to Christ.
Cancer Companions groups serve three different groups of people: Those in treatment, those in post cancer treatment and their loved ones.
“The question that really comes up through all the materials is: ‘What is God up to in the midst of my cancer?’ We give permission that it is okay to take our questions and doubts and frustration to God,” offers Tripp.
Through Cancer Companions, Tripp and volunteers all over the country are assisting families in their cancer journey, providing support and helping to train them on how to walk through this journey together and, ultimately, with God at their side.
“It is very easy to get into the midst of a cancer journey and think that, to be a good Christian, they have to have a stiff upper lip. They think they should have no doubts and just feel God has it all under control when the reality is that most things for a patient is that it all feels out of control,” says Tripp.
“When we admit to God that it feels out of control, it really strengthens their faith. We show them its okay: They can have their doubts and fears. The best thing to do is take their fears to God. They’re going to take their questions someplace. Why not take them to God?”
The program is divided into eight relevant topics: Faith, Questions for God, Healing, Prayer, Stress Reduction, Relationships, Communication and Healthy Living. On these topics, Cancer Companions offers both videos and devotionals which are then shared with cancer survivors in the group or caregivers.
“After these initial spiritual topics, we get into more concrete intrapersonal issues like the stress after the healing,” says Tripp. After all, the issues patients and survivors struggle with bleed not only into their physical and spiritual lives but also into their personal and professional lives as well.
“With survivors, for example, everyone is so relieved with the last treatment and there is a feeling that everything should go back to that place; but their bodies and their lives will never be the same.” Karen describes the tensions around the relationships of the survivor.
Family members and bosses want to know when survivors are going to help around the house or work as much as before. However, fatigue is the number one symptom that follows treatment and doesn’t stop with the last treatment, Karen explains. Cancer Companions helps walk patients, survivors and families through the ravages of the cancer journey and introduces God back into the equation.
“One of the most moving Cancer Companions stories comes out of Southern Illinois,” shares Tripp. “A couple had a child diagnosed with cancer. The couple ended up coming to a Cancer Companions support group and was definitely connected with this group of people. Some months after the group was done, they continued to get support from the group. Sadly, their son died. A year later, though, the church where they were connected, was contacted by another couple whose child had been diagnosed with cancer. This couple who had lost their child was able to connect with this new family. The way the two families supported one another was inspiring.”
Do you know someone with cancer? Karen offers a tip for you: Ask the caregiver, not the patient, what you can do. Tripp explains the reason for this.
“The primary caregiver is the one that really know the needs, the prescriptions, what food they can eat, the side effects and how to take care of that person,” Tripp notes. “And the truth is that it really has to be one person who knows all those things.”
Tripp instructs families in the cancer journey to make a list of the things they need help with. “Maybe it’s changing the light bulb, walking the dog, or getting the oil changed,” she says. “Then, we train them to simply show people the list when they ask how they can help and let them pick the thing they can do.”
Another way to help is to connect those you know in this journey with a Cancer Companions group. This national organization is now in 75 churches and eight states with plans to expand to two more states, California and Pennsylvania, early this year. Group members do not have to be Christian to participate.
To find a group near you, visit their web site, www.Cancer-Companions.org. Simply click on the link that says “Find a Cancer Companion.”
Whether you are a patient, survivor, family member or someone with a heart to help, Cancer Companions is a worthy organization with a life-changing mission. Join in on this world-changing work.
Do you want to learn more about Cancer Companions and the work they are doing nationwide? You are invited to join them in a virtual celebration on April 13th and April 14th to hear more about their plans for this year. Join in to learn about a new survivors retreat they will be offering nationwide with scholarship opportunities. Visit Cancer-Companions.org for more information on this virtual celebration and to sign up for the monthly news.