What to do or say when your friend is dealing with cancer; or, What NOT to do or say when your friend is dealing with cancer

So this one’s a bit of the blog post and leaning towards a bit of the “My Journey”, right? Well, we all know both of those distinct sections are going to merge together sooner or later, that’s where we’re headed, right?

For my birthday, Paige got me a quick-read book entitled Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler. I hadn’t heard of it but after reading a blurb about Kate (35 years old, married with an 18 month-old son when diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer) I raced through the book in two days. 

Kate Bowler also has a very active website, articles, podcast, and book club. She is a divinity professor at Duke Divinity School who has specialized in the prosperity gospel. [An aside for my a-religious friends. Prosperity gospel focuses on receiving rewards such as money, health, or success in exchange for being a faithful Christian, or in some crude cases, in exchange for money given to a church. Thinking televangelists. It’s the worst example of a very conditional arrangement.] I feel very drawn to Kate’s work and her perspective throughout her diagnosis, surgery, and treatment. Not that she would take me up on it, but I wished I would’ve been familiar with her work when Paige and I went up to Duke Cancer Center for our 2nd opinion consult so I could’ve asked to meet for coffee or lunch. Stage IV besties probably isn’t a thing but it would be fantastic to have a conversation with her.

I am taking some excerpts from her book and providing them below. These are not the excerpts on the publisher’s website and if she asks me to take them down, I will. But I feel a special resonance with these passages and compelled to share. I’m also sharing her two appendices for what not to say to people experiencing terrible times and, things to try to do or say for people experiencing terrible times. Appendix 2, item 6 is my most preferred.

Kate holds nothing back. Being young with cancer means facing people differently, especially older people. I will admit, I look at older people that don’t take care of bodies in a negative light. It’s difficult to stomach, especially when they engage you in conversation to impart their “wisdom” about what you’re going through.  Still, it’s life, and you have to laugh at situations. The passage below perfectly expresses what goes through my mind when I hear older people complain about minor health problems.

Lord, save me from old people. It will become a constant refrain with my older friends that the moment one of them starts to complain about an aching hip, all the rest will slowly turn and look for my response. And I will not disappoint them.

    “I’m soooooorry,” I sympathize, my voice thick with sarcasm. “Is your loooooong life becoming an encumbrance?” They are always full professors with endowed chairs and weighty accomplishments, so I suspect that they have not been properly made fun of before. But they are becoming my closest friends. We can sit on the same bench, quietly wondering what to do with this unwinding clock.

Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved

Then there is a deeper level. There was a long passage I remembered. I didn’t underline it at the time but it stuck in my head. When I was preparing for this post I went back to the book and found it only after a minute of searching. In my mind, I could see the page it was on. The passage is below and the whole thing speaks to me but the emphasis is mine.

The letters that really speak to me don’t talk about why we die, they talk about who was there. When you were afraid that the end had come, were you alone?

    A man writes to me about being taken hostage with his family watching helplessly as the intruders pressed guns against his children’s noses while his wife and daughter were threatened with rape. But God was there and he can’t explain it. He can’t explain who loosened the ropes and let him escape with his family unharmed. And he will never understand why he survived when his neighbor was found outside hanging by a rope the next morning. He doesn’t rationalize why some people are rescued and others are hanged and doubts there is a way that God “redeems” situations by extracting good from them. But he knows God was there because he felt peace, indescribable peace, and it changed him forever. He ends the letter with a shrug: “I have no idea how this works, but I wish this for you as you move forward.”

    His description matches something I read in the newspaper the other day that summarized the findings of the Near Death Experience Research Foundation, and, yes, there is such a thing. Thousands of people were interviewed about their brushes with death in every kind of situation— being in a car accident, giving birth, attempting suicide, et cetera— and many described the same odd thing: love. I’m sure I would have ignored the article if it had not reminded me of something that happened to me, something that I felt uncomfortable telling anyone. It seemed too cold and too simplistic to say that I knew to be true— that when I was sure I was going to die, I didn’t feel angry. I felt loved.

    In those first few days after my diagnosis, when I was in the hospital, I couldn’t see my son, I couldn’t get out of bed, and I couldn’t say for certain that I would survive the year. But I felt as though I’d uncovered something like a secret about faith. Even in lucid moments, I found my feelings so difficult to explain. I kept saying the same thing: “I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to go back.”

    At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes. I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing notes and flowers and warm socks and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement. They came in like priests and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus.

    When they sat beside me, my hand in their hands, my own suffering began to feel like it had revealed to me the suffering of others, a world of those who, like me, are stumbling in the debris of dreams they thought they were entitled to and plans they didn’t realize they had made.

    That feeling stayed with me for months. In fact, I had grown so accustomed to that floating feeling that I started to panic at the prospect of losing it. So I began to ask friends, theologians, historians, pastors I knew, and nuns I liked, What am I going to do when it’s gone? And they knew exactly what I meant because they had either felt it themselves or read about it great works of Christian theology. St. Augustine called it “the sweetness.” Thomas Aquinas called it something mystical like “the prophetic light.” But all said yes, it will go. The feelings will go. The sense of God’s presence will go. There will be no lasting proof that God exists. There will be no formula for how to get it back.

    But they offered me this small bit of certainty, and I clung to it. When the feelings recede like the tides, they said, they will leave an imprint. I would somehow be marked by the presence of an unbidden God.

    It is not proof of anything. And it is nothing to boast about. It was simply a gift. I can’t reply to the thousands of emails with my own Five-Step Plan to Divine Health or series of powerful formulas, which guarantee results. I suppose I am like the man who wrote to me to say he had seen a friend swinging from a tree and felt the presence of God in the same long, dark night. Yes. That is the God I believe in.

Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved

I have felt that feeling. That’s why I’ve posted before about gratitude and a mystical solace I’ve found in nature. I used to want to experience something “other worldly” and “ego-less” through psilocybin or psychedelic means. I feel no desire for that now, because I’ve already had what the best of what those experiences may offer. People have offered up sympathy for my experience but I’ve never felt rage, or bitterness. I have been gifted the opportunity to feel this unending peace that I can’t explain. I want this feeling for everyone else.

Sadly, I have also felt the feeling fade away. It is not completely gone. That feeling is a large reason I seek out so much spiritual knowledge, anywhere I can find it— any person, any faith, any story. This blog is something that gives me a connection to that feeling. I don’t have direct access or even an iffy static-filled connection. All I have is a wire attached to a tin-can that I can see on my end. I’m not sure what’s on the other end of the string, but I know the wire is going somewhere.

0 thoughts on “What to do or say when your friend is dealing with cancer; or, What NOT to do or say when your friend is dealing with cancer”

  1. Thanks for sharing, John. The word that stuck out for me in all of this is “imprint”. The profound peace you have experienced leaves it’s imprint – even if it waxes or wanes. Is that what you said? I hope I read that right. That really resonates with me. Amidst the deep grief I faced immediately following my mom’s suicide I remember feeling profoundly held. And though that feeling doesn’t always carry me – it has left its imprint. Hadn’t ever thought of the old people and their long damn lives before. Hearing their complaints have to suck. Grateful for you. And cancer sucks.

    1. I wish the word “imprint” was original to me. It was the amazing Kate Bowler who used that word in her passage. But it exactly describes what I feel left with. Perfectly…also your phrasing of “profoundly held” is very much resonating with me.

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