Seven years ago, my friends taught me by their extravagant example how to be a friend to someone with cancer. I was standing alone in my bedroom when I received the biopsy results, but I wasn’t alone for long. Within hours, one friend sat folding laundry and another made dinner in my kitchen, both of them holding me up with their presence.
In the days and weeks that followed, the body of Christ rallied around us, providing for my family’s physical, logistical, emotional, and spiritual needs through several months of intense treatment. They wept with us, suffered with us, bore our burdens, and sustained us with acts of service, encouraging words, and persistent prayers.
When cancer impacts a friend, we often wonder, “What can I do to help? How can I encourage her during this hard time?” Here are three first steps you can take to encourage a friend with cancer.
1. Acknowledge her situation and ask, “How are you today?”
I have a tendency to ask people who are suffering how they’re doing in a different way than I’d ask another friend. You know what I mean, right? Head tilted to the side, face scrunched with concern, voice laden with meaning: “How are you?” Our suffering friend knows exactly what we’re asking. We’re expecting her to open her heart and share the depths of her pain. She might feel pressured to share more than she intended. Maybe she’d rather chat about the latest school project or church event.
If we ask, “How are you today?” in a casual way—especially if we’ve already acknowledged her cancer diagnosis—our friend will feel free to share whatever she chooses. She can tell us how she’s processing her diagnosis, how she feels after that last round of chemo, or about the new breakfast casserole recipe she found on Pinterest. And then we can follow her lead, letting her guide the conversation wherever it makes her feel most comfortable.
2. Make a specific offer of help.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, the outpouring of support was amazing. I heard from so many people, and most of them said, “Let me know if I can do anything to help you!” But in my overwhelmed state, it was difficult to match general offers of help with my specific needs. So when a friend made a specific offer of help, naming a particular task she could help with or a day of the week when she could serve me, it made it much easier for me to say yes.
My friend Callie did this especially well. She let me know she had free time every Thursday morning and offered to drive one of my kids to school or do anything else I needed during that time. Her specific offer lined up perfectly with a need I had for someone to drive my four-year-old to preschool on Thursdays. I never would have thought to ask Callie to do that if she’d said, “Let me know what I can do.” Her specific offer of repeated service was a real blessing to our family.
Rather than saying, “I’d love to bring you dinner sometime,” try asking, “Would Monday or Wednesday be a better night for me to bring dinner over?” Or you could say something like, “I have free time this Friday afternoon. Can I come do housework for you or take your kids to the park while you rest?” Your friend will be touched by your sincere desire to serve her family.
3. Share God’s promises with her.
My brain filled with dense mental fog when I received chemo, and I struggled to read God’s Word. But I needed constant reminders of the truth of God’s character and His promises as I wrestled with anxiety, grief, and my uncertain future. Friends cared for my spiritual needs by sending frequent texts, emails, and cards that kept scripture at the forefront of my mind.
The verses that brought me the most comfort were those that reminded me of God’s presence with me and care for me. The Psalms are a great place to look for these promises. A few of my favorites include Psalm 34:18, 46:1-2, 56:8-11, 73:25-26, and 121:1-2.
When we enter into the suffering of a friend with cancer, it won’t be easy. There will be discouraging days, fears and tears, and even awkward moments as we seek to understand, love, and serve. But we can always rely on our Savior, the only perfect friend to those who are hurting. The Spirit will give us wisdom to know what our friend needs and how we can help. And our heavenly Father can be trusted to hold us fast as we love our friends through cancer.
About the Author:
Marissa Henley is a Christ-follower, wife, and mom of three who lives in Northwest Arkansas. Following her battle with rare cancer, she wrote the book Loving Your Friend through Cancer to encourage and equip the body of Christ to provide meaningful support to others. Most days, you’ll find her drinking a latte while shuttling her three kids around town, wondering if the dog will ever learn to stay and if she’ll ever love cooking as much as her husband loves eating. She would love to connect with you on social media or at www.marissahenley.com.