How to Help When Cancer Strikes Your Church

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On October 25, 2010, Trinity Grace Church was diagnosed with cancer.

Of course, I was the one who received the phone call from the doctor and scoured the internet for information about the rare cancer. But as the news rippled through our small church family, my brothers and sisters in Christ linked arms with my husband, young children, and me. They carried our burdens and wept with us.

Cancer wasn’t just an assignment the Lord gave me to glorify him in suffering. He gave this difficult assignment to my community, too.

Cancer wasn’t just an assignment the Lord gave me to glorify him in suffering. He gave this difficult assignment to my community, too.

When one of our church members faces cancer, we have a unique opportunity to show Christ’s love by working together to meet her emotional, physical, and spiritual needs. Pastors, deacons, friends, and acquaintances all have a role to play.

And when we understand the experience of cancer and the needs of cancer patients in our congregation, we will be better equipped to come alongside them with our love and support. Here are three ways to serve in a helpful way.

1. Show Empathetic Concern to Meet Emotional Needs

When I first received my diagnosis, I said to my doctor, “I’m not sure if you’re telling me I have one year, or five years, or what.” His reply wasn’t comforting: “We just don’t know yet.”

A cancer diagnosis brings a flood of difficult questions. What’s the prognosis? Will the treatment work—and what will we do next if it doesn’t? How likely is a recurrence? In many cases, these questions are impossible to answer with any degree of certainty.

When our friend with cancer struggles with uncertainty, we can start by entering into her suffering and listening well. Then we can gently point her to the unchanging and certain hope she has in Christ. When she feels overwhelmed by what she doesn’t know, encourage her to cling to what she does know: the rock-solid, never-ending promises of God’s Word.

We love cancer patients well by letting them know they aren’t forgotten.

We can also love cancer patients well by letting them know they aren’t forgotten. During my months of treatment, I was seldom able to attend corporate worship. Fatigue kept me from most social events, and our family withdrew from our typical activities. We were in survival mode.

But my community showed me that “out of sight” doesn’t mean “out of mind” by continuing to visit, text, and send cards. These efforts reminded me that while I was physically alone during much of my treatment, I wasn’t actually alone. I was enveloped in love.

2. Rally the Community to Meet Physical Needs

The physical and logistical needs of a cancer patient range from a few meals after surgery to months or even years of food, transportation, child care, housework, yard work, and financial assistance. While emotional needs will be met primarily by close friends, these physical needs present an opportunity for those in the patient’s wider circles to come alongside her family.

When someone is overwhelmed by a recent diagnosis, it’s difficult for her to organize offers of help. Churches can help by removing this burden from the patient and her immediate family. A person with the gift of administration can talk with the family about their logistical needs and available resources. Ask the family to direct all offers of help to this coordinator, and let the coordinator match the needs with friends’ availability.

One of the best ways friends can serve is to bring food. Our family received meals three times a week for more than eight months. That’s about 100 meals! The meal coordinator at our church set up a rotation of church members and other friends and neighbors. The wider support network lessened the burden on our young congregation and gave more people an opportunity to serve.

3. Provide Biblical Encouragement to Meet Spiritual Needs

My spiritual life changed dramatically with my cancer diagnosis. I’d never been so certain of the truth of God’s character—and never so desperate for constant reminders of this sustaining truth. The Lord used the body of Christ to hold me up when I wasn’t sure I could stand under the weight of my pain.

I was encouraged and strengthened each time I received a text that simply read, “You don’t have to write back, but I wanted you to know I’m praying for you.” When my brain was foggy from chemo, I struggled to focus while reading the Bible. I loved having friends remind me of God’s presence with me by sending Scripture verses, quotes from hymns, and links to worship-song videos.

Additionally, be aware of the misleading messages about suffering that your friend with cancer will hear from others. She may be told that her illness results from unconfessed sin in her life, that she needs to “claim healing” with unwavering faith, or similar unbiblical sentiments. Your church family can support her by knowing the truth of God’s Word and helping her develop a biblical view of suffering.

Friends, this isn’t easy. We will make missteps and endure awkward encounters. We may feel discouraged or helpless as we watch our friend suffer.

But our hearts and our church communities will grow in steadfastness, as Romans 5 promises, because suffering produces endurance, character, and hope in God’s love. The One who will wipe every tear from our eyes sees our friends’ heartache and needs.

We can depend on the faithfulness of our Savior, the Man of Sorrows and the perfect Friend, as we enter into suffering with others.

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