“You are cancer free.”
That is possibly the most joyous phrase anyone with cancer can hear. The battle has been long, stressful and probably painful but, they made it through. They are a cancer survivor. What a powerful statement!
In the church, when we hear our loved ones deliver this good news, we celebrate with them and then often go about our lives or focus on the next person in need. But is that really the end for a cancer survivor? What is it they are truly dealing with after cancer and how normal is it?
For most cancer patients, even when their scans show no evidence of disease, there is a constant fear in the back of their minds that their cancer will return. Every little pain or inconsistency with their body can trigger a rush of fear and anxiety.
The fear of death and dying does not leave just because someone has been declared cancer free. For a former cancer patient, that fear is still very much a reality, even years afterwards.
For months or possibly years, a cancer patient has had people asking about them, checking in on them frequently to hear how their doctor’s appointment went. When they learn that they are cancer free, many assume their way of life will return to normal. But what they didn’t account for is that people don’t call or visit as often and the doctors and physicians they became so close to are no longer a part of their everyday lives. It is easy for someone to believe that people have stopped caring, or that they simply are not as important now that they don’t have cancer.
It is quite common for former cancer patients to suffer from depression because their care and support teams vanish almost overnight. People no longer offer their prayers or services to help them get through the day.
Lack of Confidence
Even as the body gets stronger and healthier after cancer treatment, there can still be changes that remain.
A former patient may feel self-conscious around their spouse in an intimate setting, or they may begin to wear different types of clothing to cover a scar. Not all former patients view these physical markers as “battle wounds” to be celebrated. Some may view them as a reminder of an experience they would prefer to forget.
In addition, some patients may have had to reduce their responsibilities at work or at home while undergoing treatment. In their transition to normalcy, they may feel as though they have been replaced, or that they have lost the strength to take back certain tasks, which can further affect their confidence.
A common misconception about those who have received a clean bill of health is that the side-effects and pain go away. In truth, they are still very real for many, and addressing symptoms such as chronic fatigue can dramatically change the life and outlook of a former patient.
Because of the physical pain, and lingering effects of chemotherapy treatments, radiation and surgery, some former patients feel angry that they are not enjoying a fulfilling post-cancer life.
Finally, there is often a guilt associated with all of the above feelings. “Why am I not happy? Why can’t I just let myself relax? This is what I’ve been praying for!”
Often times, people of faith wonder why they are having trouble praising God in this time of celebration. They question if their faith is strong enough to move them beyond this transitionary time in their lives. There are many questions they ask themselves and there is much guilt associated with that lack of contentment and thankfulness.
So, how can the church community support former cancer patients at this confusing and frustrating time in their lives?
Below are a few tips to help you support them as they begin this new stage of their lives.
- Eat out. Instead of regular meal deliveries they had become used to, ask them out to lunch or dinner frequently. This will help ease them into a new life outside the home and they will still feel the love and support of their friends.
- Ask questions. If you notice they are in pain or seem depressed, don’t shy away from approaching the subject with them. There is no need to pry into a specific situation, but offer to take them to a follow-up appointment, or ask if they have been struggling with anything in this new life they are experiencing.
- Inspire them to be healthy. Encourage them to take back what they can control for their health by meeting with a dietitian, eating nutritious foods and exercising regularly. By making their body as healthy and strong as possible, they will feel they are controlling what they can when it comes to their future health.
- Shop. Offer to accompany them on a shopping spree to celebrate their new start. A new wardrobe could help build confidence and allow them to see themselves in a different light.
- Pray. Keep them on your prayer list at church. Celebrate the milestone and ask for continued prayers as they learn to navigate this new life they have been blessed with.
- Suggest a support group. There are other members of your congregation and in the community that may also be experiencing survivor’s guilt or struggling with how heal a marriage after the trauma of cancer.
Cancer survivors are often overlooked. We are tempted to celebrate their victory and emotionally move on, leaving them to deal with the aftermath. Though many understand the sentiment is unintended, it can make them feel further isolated at a time when they are very much in need of support. Continued support from your church can make a world of difference in the life of a survivor!