“It’s cancer.”

One of the worst phrases I’ve ever heard. It’s a phrase that my parents didn’t want to say when they called me to tell me my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer while I was attending Concordia, Seward, and when my husband repeated the doctor’s diagnosis of his colonoscopy to me, I didn’t want to hear it. The “C word” is a phrase that happens in the cancer community a lot, as well as prefixing with profanity to express how disdainful this chronic illness is to those diagnosed and their families.

When people we know are diagnosed with an illness that could kill them, we are hit with many mixed emotions. We seek understanding in our faith. We look to science. We seek control and ways to “help”. We want to make it okay, for the diagnosed as well as ourselves. We grasp at quick and easy things to say or do that will relieve the mental, emotional and physical pain of survivors of critical illness and their families. Often these things are helpful and kind, but unfortunately, equally as often, these things can be counter productive at best and contrary to doctrine at worst. So, how do we as youth leaders respond when a student in our group is directly affected by a cancer or other illness? Our goal is always to bring students into closer relationships with Christ their Savior, so how can the Holy Spirit work through us in pursuit of that for these students?

Quick and trite comments such as “everything happens for a reason” are not helpful or Biblical. If you have used a comment along these lines, don’t beat yourself up. The family has heard it
before, and they’ll hear it again. Simply move forward in learning more about our theology and how God’s truth can be a comfort without “sound bites” like these. Consider reminding them that
they are deeply loved by God and that they can hold tight to His promises, even when it doesn’t feel like it. Spend time with them in Scripture when they have questions.

Chronic illnesses are a long game, which is challenging for our own sense of mortality. Cancer families need you more than just the six months of chemo. Cancer is never really gone. There is the constant threat of the disease recurring and no matter how mild the cold or how obvious the injury, the stress and anxiety associated with any medical issues following a cancer diagnosis is extreme.

Serving immediate needs for cancer is awesome. Meal trains, prayers, fundraisers can all be truly helpful… if the family needs or desires them. What if mom’s mental health therapy is cooking for her family? Is months of meals provided the most helpful thing we can do? Consider if public prayers are potentially making the family fodder for gossip mongers, rather than creating welcome to your student? I’m asking you to allow the family to lead in their own lives. Sometimes they may need someone to offer rides to sports activities or initiate a set up of a Go Fund Me page, but please be respectful and sensitive to what they actually need and not just what you feel you can do to help. As a leader, you can be an advocate for these families in your congregations. Communicate to the level that they are comfortable. Try to pick up on unspoken messages the family may be sending. “We’re good, thanks so much.” Is this true, or an automatic response. It’s possible the youth or family are avoiding further conversation at this moment, since families dealing with cancer don’t only want to talk about cancer.

If nothing else, do some research. Connect with advocacy groups related to your students family’s situation. Pass on the information in a nonchalant manner. You can offer to make the introduction if they’d like, keeping in mind they are already underwater with information and tasks to complete. They may not be ready for what you are offering.

Be conscientious when presenting lessons, saying prayers, and planning activities. Allow for mental, emotional and physical options for students who may need them. Perhaps an open gym time is a better option for students who want to participate in activities to burn off energy in stressful times. If you have a prayer request time, allow students to say or not say whatever they need. Touch base prior to meeting times to see if they do want prayer, and maybe don’t want to say so in front of all their peers.

Stick with them. Check in after the novelty of the diagnosis has worn off, after the meal train has concluded, after their family has “healed from surgery”, or their “last chemo” infusion. This family
is going to have 3, 6, and 12 month check ups. They’re going to have 3 year check ups and 5 year scans. If it’s God’s will, they’ll be declared “in remission’ or “NED” (No Evidence of Disease) . But that doesn’t take away their experience or the anxiety that at any moment their lives could once again be at stake from an invisible betrayal by their own body.

Most of all, infuse every interaction with the love of Christ. Don’t forget cancer can cause doubt in even the most faithful Christian. Reassure that God wants only good for His people and that God is with us regardless of how we feel about Him. We can be confident in our salvation through Jesus, but also struggle to understand. God can handle us, our love and hope as well as our doubts, fears and other negative thoughts and emotions.

Finally, be patient with yourself, cancer diagnosis are challenging to navigate for everyone, including well meaning youth leaders. God is merciful and good and no matter how bad we may mess up, He is big enough to fix any mistake we can make and can work through us to show God’s love to youth and their family in those important times.