I sat uncomfortably in the nicely-furnished room of the doctor’s office, trying to make small talk with my wife. Finally, the urologist walked in, exchanged brief pleasantries and sat down. I was trying to read his face, but it was as deadpan as a professional poker player’s.
“I don’t like to beat around the bush,” he said. “You have cancer.”
I felt a cold, invisible hand punch me in the chest. Thus began a journey for which I felt woefully unprepared. Aside from a few minor surgeries, I had never had anything this serious. For a week or two, I stumbled around in a haze of anxiety, unable to shake the worst-case scenario from my mind.
That was a year ago. Six months later, in late May 2016, I had surgery. Today I am cancer-free and feeling like my old self again. Reflecting on the ordeal, I would like to share one “do” and one “don’t” when you are ministering to someone who is having a hard time.
DON’T JUMP IN WITH ADVICE
People who have received a diagnosis are under the care of medical professionals. Unsolicited advice can be confusing and frightening, even dangerous. After I made my cancer public, several people suggested I change my diet or seek non-traditional medical approaches. One man warned me to stay away from “know-it-all” doctors who would make my problem worse. Another man approached me at church, just a week before my scheduled surgery, strongly advising me to cancel the date. He then painted a depressing picture of the side effects of the procedure — some of which were very manageable, others which never happened. I am sure these people meant well, but it didn’t help at all. It made me feel like I had made the wrong decision, instilling doubt, stirring up fear.
Oh, and please don’t tell someone — even a believer — to just have faith. This makes it sound like they have no faith at all, when it is understandably shaken. One person told me that he knew a man who was healed of prostate cancer through prayers. I do not underestimate the power of prayer, but what if a person isn’t cured? The “prayer-only people” may be insinuating that someone didn’t pray hard enough or that the intercessions weren’t heard for some reason. This opens the door to unneeded guilt. Prayer isn’t a cure-all; it is a means to communicate with our Heavenly Father even when the way remains dark and unknown.
Will Rogers famously said, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” That may sound harsh, but I think it’s good advice for people who want to give advice that wasn’t requested.
DO OFFER COMFORT
Galatians 6:2 commands us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” Despite the people who jumped in with recommendations, there were more who offered reassurances. Many simply said, “I am praying for you.” A lot of churches put me on their prayer lists, which gave me great comfort. Two congregations sent me prayer shawls. One couple came over with meals during my convalescence.
To comfort someone doesn’t mean a platitude and pat on the head. It literally means “to strengthen greatly.” The best comfort is simple: a hug, a prayer or card, tangible assistance, your presence. Never underestimate just showing up and sitting with a hurting person for a spell. Let them cry, let them talk, let them rant without judgment. If you have been through a similar experience, ask if it would be okay to share — but don’t make it all about you. Give them just enough to strengthen their faith and let them know that you truly understand what they are going through. Several men who had prostate cancer quietly shared their experiences with me and imparted great confidence that I could lick this disease.
I can sum this up by asking a question: “If you were going through a trial, would you want people bombarding you with clichés and opinions – or would you like a friend to gently come alongside you with prayers and a strong shoulder to lean on?”
I am truly grateful for those who did the latter during my time of need.