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Some advice is not helpful for persons stuggling with cancer

By Rod Andrews


“You are a person to be loved, not a problem to be solved.” Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, is 38 years old and a young mother. She studies the religious belief “that health, wealth and happiness will come to those who believe.” She tries to understand why many people believe that a person with the right kind of faith will be healthy, prosperous and happy.

Her own faith has been challenged by a diagnosis of colon cancer. Friends and colleagues offer comfort and advice. Not all their words are helpful. They try to solve her problem for her. She just needs to be loved.

Three years ago she was busy in her office when the phone rang. A woman “who sounded like she had many phone calls to make” told her, “The tests came back. You have stage four colon cancer. You need to come in.” Kate’s response was: “But I have a son.”

Originally from Manitoba and raised as a Mennonite, Kate was thrust into a world of hospital beds, intravenous therapy and physical pain. She “lives from scan to scan.” “Cancer has kicked down the walls of my life.” Her illness caused her to reflect deeply on her life and her relationship with God. She protested, “Does cancer not care I have plans?” “Does cancer not care that I have tried to be a good person?” “I have so much that I love.”

She talks about a neighbour who came to their door and attempted to comfort her husband. The well-meaning woman told him, “There is a reason for everything.”

“I’d love to hear it,” Kate’s husband responded. “Pardon?” was the startled neighbour’s response. “I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying.” There is not a reason for everything. Some things evade all reason. Kate’s latest book is called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Have Lived.

Other people began their sentences with “At least.” “At least you have a husband, at least you have a son, at least you live close to a hospital,” and so on. Sentences beginning with “At least” do not help a young mother with incurable cancer.

Kate has a suggestion for people who say, “God never gives us more than we can handle.” “Instead of speaking theology, why not be the faith your friend needs? Help shoulder her burden instead of blithely reassuring her that she should be self-sufficient in handling hard times.”

Kate was interviewed recently on the CBC radio program “The Current.” The interviewer asked “How do you keep your faith when there is no cure for your disease and you do not know how much time you have left?”

She replied, “I don’t have to try quite so hard to achieve God’s nod of approval. What I need is for everyone to come alongside and fill in the gaps.” She finds joy in everything that comes in the course of a day: “what is big and brave and also what is small and cuddly.”

Henri Nouwen was a Dutch priest who reflected deeply on faith and suffering. Nouwen wrote: “When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain.”

“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion . . . is a friend who cares.”

Kate says, “Life does not keep, but love does.”

Andrews is a retired Anglican bishop. This article appeared in the April Country Guide . Reprinted with permission.