A cancer survivor presented to my Stephen Ministry group. He wanted to both affirm our efforts to be compassionate listeners, and to offer insights into what is helpful to someone experiencing a medical crisis.
Some of his suggestions were not surprising. Providing meals, doing laundry, and offering childcare made a difference, especially if they did not involve decision making for the ones receiving it. Even that deceptively small step can be draining for an already overloaded brain. He personally felt a wave of support from his community and extended family throughout his many months of treatment which included practically every test yet devised. He taught us the notion of scanxiety, which is the discomfort that builds up after a series of invasive procedures.
He also spelled out things that are unhelpful. Comments that minimize the trauma, or pull attention from the patient to the speaker’s own history do more harm than good. As do efforts to give empty reassurance.
“You will be okay.”
“Let me tell you about what I went through.”
“Don’t be scared.”
“God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
“There is an alternative treatment you really have to try.”
I was moved to hear that he strove to hear the well meaning intentions within their words. And yet it might serve all of us better to screen such advice giving before we speak.
He described the deep sadness that was his companion. Love for his wife and children had come under fire with the possibility of not living a full life with them. Amazingly, anger did not make a strong appearance. This is not true of everyone fighting cancer.
But in the absence of certainty, or time travel into his own future, he held tight to something else. Hope.