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By Karen Tripp MS LMFT Executive Director, Cancer Companions Ministry
It’s hard to fill a need when you don’t know there is a need. Have you noticed that many newly diagnosed cancer patients tell their church “I’m fine.”?
One reason this happens is that at diagnosis, most cancer patients have little or no symptoms, pain, or even discomfort. They just woke up one morning feeling fine and went to a cancer screening. Or, they have a small symptom, like a persistent cough, which led to a chest X-ray. Then, when the results come back that they have cancer, they are thinking “How can I have cancer? I feel fine.”
So, when the church reaches out to a newly diagnosed cancer patient, it makes sense that the patient says “I’m fine.” Yet, what do we know? We know that on the day a cancer patient is diagnosed, they feel healthier than they probably will for the next 12 months – even if the cancer treatment only lasts 6 months. Why? Because most cancer treatments make you feel worse to help you get better.
The work of the church is not to fix the problems of cancer, but to help the cancer patient and their loved ones focus on the light of Christ more and the darkness of cancer less. From the Christian cancer patients that I have worked with, it seems that though their faith in their salvation is strong, there are times when it is hard to see God in the chaos that is cancer.
Here are four concerns some cancer patients need their church to address so they will not be overwhelmed by their cancer:
Concern #1: Diagnosis
Hearing that you have cancer is a paradigm shift. Before diagnosis, a patient sees their physical, financial, and emotional future pretty clearly. Yet, with the cancer diagnosis, their view can turn into a blur. The list of things they are uncertain about explodes, as cancer brings a whole new list of things they do not know about. At times this limbo can bring worry, frustration, or even fear, making one wonder “What is God up to now?”
The church can help cancer patients see that uncertainty is often part of God’s path. Pillars of the faith – Noah, Abraham, Moses, David – all faced giant times of uncertainty of where their path with the Lord was leading.
As Hebrews 11:1 tells us: Faith is not faith without uncertainty.
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
There will be times when cancer patients need to hear that the pressure of uncertainty is not a sign that God is not with them. In truth, the uncertainty is an invitation to focus on God’s certainty.
- “God is certain that you are His beloved child whom He adores.”
- “God is certain that Christ’s sacrifice conquered sin, death and even cancer.”
- “God is certain that He is with you now and forever.”
Concern #2: Treatment Choice
As new treatment options are discovered, oncologists may ask patients “Which of these 2 or 3 treatments would you prefer?” Most of us everyday folks feel unequipped or even overwhelmed to make these complex medical decisions.
The church can help the cancer patient turn to God not just for peace in the decision but discernment to make the decision.
As James 1:5 tells us: God wants to give you wisdom, so ask.
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
My experience with cancer patients is that there is so much more God wants to give them for their cancer journey than what they ask for. Facing a treatment choice is just one of countless times on a cancer journey that a cancer patient needs not just solid medical advice, but the discernment which comes from God.
Concern #3: Scans and Test Results
Cancer differs from many medical conditions because treatment periodically pauses to complete scans and test to see if the treatment is working. It’s common for cancer patient to feel anxiety and get caught up in the “what if’s”: “What if the tumor has grown?” “What if the treatment is not working?”
The church can help equip the cancer patient to cope with their anxiety by turning their focus to Christ-filled things.
Philippians 4:8 tells us: You are able to lead your thoughts to better places.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
The goal is not simply to think of these things, but to actually catch yourself thinking the negative thoughts and to replace them with these positive thoughts. This might be Christian music or books or the most powerful source of Christ-filled thoughts: scripture. Reading a favorite Bible story, flipping through a list of meaningful scripture, or reading just one verse over and over until you smile can make a world of difference.
Concern #4: Post-Cancer Treatment Depression
The cancer journey does not end on the last day of treatment. In Dr. Jean Yi’s article Anxiety and Depression in Cancer Survivors, she stated that “After cancer treatment, many survivors report feeling alone or even abandoned following the intensive support provided during their treatment.” (1) Unfortunately, many family, friends, and bosses believe that after treatment everything should go back to pre-diagnosis “normal.”
The church can help post-treatment cancer survivors to not feel abandoned by their church.
Galatians 6:2 tells us: Being free of hardship does not mean free of burden.
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
Perhaps the hardest part of bearing another person’s burden is knowing the burden exists. We began this article by acknowledging that most cancer patients tell the church “I’m fine.” It’s easy to see how a church might be unaware when these 4 concerns are impacting their cancer patients. Beginning to bear another’s burden requires consistency, compassion, and trust. What cancer patients need is someone with the time and training to consistently and compassionately engage with them so they can build trust.
At Cancer Companions, we discovered a church-based volunteer program called Cancer Prayer Partners. This program pairs a trained volunteer with a cancer patient to make weekly calls and ask “Is there anything I can pray for you this week?” From this simple and consistent touch, connections are made, compassion is shared, and low and behold, there is trust.
Learn more about the Cancer Prayer Partner Program and our scripture/prayer-filled materials created specifically for those struggling with cancer. Go to https://www.cancer-companions.org/faq-cancerprayerpartners/ or contact Cancer Companions at 314-814-0044.
1.Yi, jean C., and Karen L. Syrjala. “Anxiety and Depression in Cancer.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Institue of Health, Nov. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5915316/ .