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January 24, 2005

Popping Cancer Update: On What NOT to Say to a Cancer Patient.

Once, when I was 18 years old, I was in a hospital bed in Portsmouth, Virginia. I was told I had a late-stage form of Hodgkin's Disease and that I was in big trouble.

I was scared, alone, away from home.

On this particular day, a woman from the church came to visit me. She said a few things, then suggested that I "search my life for sin" that may have caused God to give me cancer.

I was, as I said, young and scared and alone, and she was a respected lady in the church, so I didn't have the experience or courage to say what I should have said, which is, of course, "Go to Hell. If you ever set foot in this hospital room again, I promise you I will find the strength somehow to escort you out, painfully."

How horrible! Somehow, I think she thought she was doing me, or God, a favor. I imagine she would be able to defend her statement to her church cohorts, as well. Maybe one of them would thank her for saying that to me.

Not long after, another year or so down the road, and I was again (or still, I forget which) in a hospital bed. Another lady from church came to visit. After a bit of uncomfortable discussion, she said, "What is Jesus teaching you in all this?"

What is Jesus teaching me? What is Jesus teaching me?

Maybe that chemotherapy sucks. That cancer is evil and horrible and I hate it and I can't think about anything except how much it hurts and please, please, please someone, anyone make it stop! How about, Jesus is teaching me how it feels to be scared and alone while my friends are living their lives in college, having fun, and I'm here with doctors telling me I'm dying!

Let me make this clear. God didn't GIVE me cancer. God has no desire for me to get sick and die, and it's not part of a holy plan for me to learn some valuable lesson. Shut. Up.

Anything good that ever came out of cancer came from the patient alone. Cancer is evil. If you think God would make me sick like this to teach me some valuable skills, we worship different gods. Period.

The problem is that normal, thinking humans get uncomfortable around sick people and in hospitals. They say things to patients without thinking because they think they SHOULD say SOMETHING.

Then add a layer of Christianity.

Not only do folks feel like they have to say SOMETHING, they think they have to say something hopeful and Christ-centered. This is bunk.

Sometimes, what I needed more than anything was a friend who would just sit quietly and be sorry I was sick. Someone who was just THERE and didn't need to put what can't be spoken into awkward words.

Once, a friend of mine came in to the room, held my hand, and started to cry. After a while, she gave me a hug, and a smile, and left. NOT ONE WORD the entire visit. It was perfect.

Sometimes, the patient will want to talk, need words of encouragement, desire to get things off his/her chest. Let them guide the conversation.

If you feel uncomfortable around hospitals or sick folks, don't visit me. It won't make it better and it will only serve to salve your own ego.

Ask me "is this a good time?" and "do you want to talk about it?" or, best of all, "how do you feel?" That last one will let me answer physically ("I feel tired/nauseated/much better"), emotionally ("I'm very sad/happy/scared") or even spiritually ("I feel alone. I feel abandoned by God.") I might even respond "I don't feel like talking."

And that's ok. It's all ok.

Any way a patient feels is alright.

There have been days I was so angry at God I could break things. It's ok; let me feel the way I feel.

There are days I've said aloud that I'm not sure I believe in God anymore. Don't freak out, church friends. It's ok. It's ok.

I may be dying. Just love me, ok? Love me in your words, or in your silence, or in your staying away because the visit would be more about you than me.

And there's the answer. Cancer patients don't need words. They don't need visitors. They need to be loved. Honestly loved.


Posted by Dan at January 24, 2005 08:02 PM

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Are you Dan? Or are you really Dr. Phil?

Posted by: Jim at January 24, 2005 11:45 PM

Wilbur yawned and went back to sleep. In his dreams he heard again the voice saying, "I'll be a friend to you. Go to sleep-you'll see me in the morning."
Charlotte's Web, E.B. White

Posted by: Jim at January 25, 2005 12:36 AM


Um... didn't the spider end up dying? Are you saying I'm going to live and YOU will die?

Because I might be willing to consider any offers at this point.

Posted by: Big Dan at January 25, 2005 08:33 AM


Posted by: Jim at January 25, 2005 10:36 AM

Charlotte the spider. The web in Charlotte's web was hers. Spider. Dead.

Posted by: Big Dan at January 25, 2005 11:11 AM

So that's what this is all about! A spider. Wow. You know I thought we were talking about Parker's girlfriend in Spider Man III. Thanks for the clarification and setting me straight.

Posted by: Jim at January 25, 2005 11:59 AM

Thanks for the info. It is awkward, not knowing what to say and feeling like you need to say something. It makes everything very clear that people just need to be loved.

Posted by: Rick at May 11, 2005 05:22 PM

i don't know you (much less love you), but you seem to really have your head screwed on straight. it's very rare that i see anybody that can see through all the bullshit and understand things the way they really are. too bad people need such extreme experiences to gain this clear vision.

Posted by: Amos at July 5, 2005 08:59 AM

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