An excerpt from my book with the working title Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer. This is based on an actual letter I received, although names have been changed to protect privacy.
I have something I wanted to ask your advice about. I have this friend, recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She hasn’t wanted to tell many people, surrounding herself with only those she considers to be “positive” people, and those who will join her in believing for her healing. She is now undergoing chemotherapy, and very few people know how sick she really is. I feel so burdened for her, being one of the few who know the truth. But I live forty minutes drive away from her home, and so I feel kind of helpless. Other friends ask about her and I feel obliged not to divulge how ill she is, because she’s asked me not to. She has four children who are struggling because they are alone a lot of the time (she home-schools) and I fear they don’t have much contact with others.
But there is a problem. Whilst I respect her decision not to share her experiences with everyone, knowing that many might be negative or are not fully convinced of God’s ability to heal her, her withholding has created a barrier between her and the church congregation. People are now not bothering to ask after her because they know they won’t find out what they want to know. At the same time, she is wondering why people seem to have forgotten about her. Her belief is that people should continue to pray, provide support and bring meals without necessarily knowing how bad things are, and without her explaining what is happening to her. Like I said, I fully respect her decision, knowing she does not want any gossiping or misinformation going on. Have you come across this before?
Thanks for writing to me, I am glad you did. I actually think your friends response is reasonable, normal and in many ways, very wise. I have found there is a very strong tendency, particularly amongst Christians, to have widely ambiguous and not always Biblical views about life threatening diseases like cancer. I’ve seen also a tendency for people to believe they have a right to judge others for their choices in cancer treatment. I believe that how a person chooses to participate in their own physical and spiritual healing is between them and God. However, some Christians seem to believe that it’s their responsibility to make sure a person is doing what they think they might do under the same circumstances, a bit like Job’s friends. No wonder your friend doesn’t want to tell many people what she is going through and what her choices are. She probably realises that in a speedy minute she would have more of others people’s opinions, judgements, advice and “kind words” than she is prepared to put up with. Not everyone who goes through cancer wants to be treated as its victim. She sounds like a woman trying very hard to take control of her own situation, and it also sounds like she’s doing a pretty good job.
Are Christians not called to have compassion for and help each other when a member of the church body needs it? Of course. But I have found that many Christians appear to believe that really sick or damaged people in the church are “church property”. They want to know all their business, as if being sick means you have to give up all rights you have to privacy. When I was sick, for some reason people felt they could come into my house uninvited any time they liked, as if I had relinquished my right to a front door. This is made worse when these same people are the ones who want to help, and whose help you actually want, and need.
I’m afraid that I agree with your friend. It sounds like she has a healthy sense of boundaries. I think the church should fulfil her wish to be upheld in prayer, and continue to bring her meals, whilst resisting the temptation to have her trade for these services by satisfying the curiosity of the helpers. She should be cross that the church seems to be forgetting about her. It absolutely is enough for them to know she is a sister in need of their support and assistance, and she should not be made to feel she must share all her gory details.
Think about it. This woman is coping with the very real fear she may not see her children grow up, and their father is nowhere in sight. She is probably wondering if anyone will ever love her body again. Will she be permanently disfigured by the disease, or perhaps even mutilated by the treatment? Has God abandoned her? The last thing she needs to worry about is whether her church friend’s feelings are being hurt because she doesn’t want to sit around with them and have a big cry about it. She is not worried about their hurt feelings, or their morbid curiousity. She is fighting to maintain the life she has made for herself, and creating a future for her children that perhaps excludes their mother (as it already does their father). If she leaves them, it will be through no fault or desire of her own.
If this woman’s disease has created a barrier between her and the church, I think the church needs to take a good, hard look at itself. And I also think she ought to extend her reach for support. Sometimes it’s better to leave your friends out of it; they can be too invested emotionally in the situation to be much real help.
Your church has a wonderful opportunity to show your friend true Christlike charity and grace by loving her and supporting her no matter what. Tell those women to get over themselves and start making casseroles. They need to look beyond this woman’s behaviour, mind their own business and just demonstrate Christs love to her without expecting the trade-off of her privacy and good behaviour, which they clearly feel should serve as a down payment for their services.
And, if they can’t bake, for goodness sake tell them do not stop praying!
Tell your friend my heart is breaking for her, and I will pray for her continued healing.
Bless you, Camille,