No matter what I say, or how gently I try to say it, I know this post is just bound to come over as super-critical and hyper-mean towards Christians – or should I say, fellow Christians, because I am one. Maybe it’s because I’m one I’ve heard so many of the things I’m about to list said to people, who have not just cancer, but many other chronic and acute medical conditions, disabilities or other physical and mental issues as well. I do know whenever I bring up the issue of “things not to say” in the cancer context, or any other context for that matter, folks do tend to become quite defensive about it, and I can understand why.
“We’re only trying to help.”
“It’s the thought that counts.”
“Never meant to cause harm.”
I know, we know, the person with the cancer/mental illness/child with a disability fully appreciates, this is true. In fact, the sincere well-wishes on the part of the person saying the thing in question might be the only part of the whole interaction which is “true”. Many of the things we find ourselves uttering to a person with a health issue may certainly not be true – or theologically accurate, or evidence based, or helpful.
Sorry to be so blunt. I’m not trying to be abrasive, really, I’m not. I’m trying to be honest. Some of the standard things we church people say to others when they’re sick are simply wrong, or in bad taste, and at worst, can cause real hurt and confusion.
Things Not To Say To Someone In Your Church Who Has Cancer
“God is in control.” “This must be His will.” “Everything happens for a reason.”
When I had cancer, I spent a lot of time thinking about this concept many Christians have of God being in control of everything. I thought about what this meant for me and my family, if my dying of cancer was “His will.” I tried very hard to get my head around what possible reasoning He could have for the things I was going through, for my husband losing the wife of his youth, for my four children growing up without their mother. In the end, it didn’t help me to think about these things, or to think of God in this way. When I prayed for God to show me “what I was supposed to to” in my cancer experience to please Him, when I read the book of Job and tried to draw parallels between myself and the heroes of the Bible, when I tried very hard to arrange the events in my cancer experience into some kind of sensible order others might draw “inspiration and encouragement” from, I just felt very, very tired.
When I asked God where He was in cancer, He always just said “Here.”
“You’ll have an amazing testimony when this is all over.” “God arranged this, and has someone for you to witness to.”
Suggestions that God sets certain pretty terrible life circumstances in play in order for us to work out how exactly they are to be interpreted, after which we are expected to then reinterpret them for others is a particularly exquisite kind of torturous homework Christians seem to like to set each other. Sometimes our job isn’t to witness to everyone else in the cancer ward. God doesn’t get mad if we just lay there being sick, whiny and frightened.
Folks asked me to come and share my “testimony” after I got better, but I soon learned they didn’t want to know how scared and messed up I was after the cancer went away, and how anxious I was it might come back. Quite the opposite.
“Just pray and God will heal you.” “If you have enough faith, you won’t need chemotherapy.”
You can think this is true, and possible, if you like. You can even believe it with all your heart if you like. You can even think it and believe it and have cancer and give it a try all at the same time if you like. Myself, I’ve seen people who didn’t believe in God get better, and people who refused to do anything about their disease other than pray die from cancer. Personally, I had chemotherapy, and radiotherapy, everything else they offered me, and I prayed and thanked God for all of it. You can believe what you like, and also theorise about faith and cancer, and hold your own lofty ideals about what you’d do if you had cancer concerning faith/prayer etc, all you want. But you do not get to say anything about those theories to someone who actually has cancer. No, you do not. I cannot stress this enough.
“You must have sin in your life.”
I’ve done a lot of checking, and so far the only universally common precursor I’ve found for having cancer is possession of a human body.
– Want to know what to say?
Things To Say To Someone In Your Church Who Has Cancer
“We’ve organised dinners to be delivered to your house for the next three months. Please tell us what you like to eat, and we promise we won’t bring lasagne more than once a week.”
“What do you need?”
“What do your kids/partner/parents need?”
“I’ll come clean your house every Monday until you tell me to stop.”
“If you need someone to manage the information the way you’d like it managed, tell me what you’d like people to know, and have them call me.”
“This isn’t your fault.”
“I’m praying for you.”
My book Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer is available here.
If you’re located along the east coast of Australia, I’d be happy to come and share tactfully but honestly with your congregation or ministry team about –
– How to talk about cancer and other chronic illnesses
– What it’s really like to experience cancer as a Christian, and what your church can do to make it easier
Call me or send me an invite. For those locations I can’t get to right now, perhaps read this blog post in your next church/ministry leaders meeting. Seriously, you guys and girls need to know this stuff. Cancer affects one in two people in the population, and realistically, this means people in your church as well. Take leadership on this issue, and help your congregants really help each other.
And please use the comments section below to leave your suggestions and tell us about your own experiences – love to hear them!