Cancer from a friend's perspective....
Sharing in Suffering – by Aly Pray
I received the text that said "it's cancer." I was sitting at the salon getting my hair cut and I just remember feeling like I was going to puke everywhere. The room got quiet, I felt chills all over my body, and the room started spinning slowly. I wasn't supposed to be reading those words on a text showing up on my phone from my friend. I sat down in disbelief, with thousands of thoughts and emotions racing through my mind. You would think that when you hear news like that from a close friend, you would be prepared with a beautiful response filled with truth and encouragement, but I had nothing. I started texting my response about 10 times and deleted every single one. I didn't know what to say. I didn't know what to feel. "Getting my hair done now and I'm shaking in my chair. I don't know how to handle this except pray!" And I did, for hours it seemed. It was all a blur and I don't even know how many words I prayed. I just remember praying over and over and over "God, show us the ways that you will be glorified through this and allow us to trust you."
God's timing could not have been more perfect in how he allowed our friendship to deepen and grow over the last year and a half to get it to where it was right then as we would soon enter this journey together. Several months ago, the Tomlins invited our family to join them in Florida over the summer. We decided to come along because a carefree, relaxing, beautiful week on the beach sounded pretty great. Little did we know, the week we thought we had "planned" would look a little different. It was still beautiful, but it carried a heaviness with it that I cannot describe. Holly found out that it was cancer on Thursday and then on Friday we drove to Florida to spend the next 8 days together. I will never forget those 8 days, the conversations that we had, the moments that we just sat in silence, the taste of salty tears and dried saltwater on my cheeks. Holly was not necessarily suffering from the cancer itself yet, but the heaviness and darkness of doubts and anxieties that the news of cancer created were almost suffocating. I sat in the sand watching our kids splash in the water. It brought a smile to my face seeing their little sun kissed faces having so much fun without a care in the world. I felt like I had escaped the heaviness for a moment, but then I looked at Holly and saw the pain on her face as she was also watching the kids splash in the water…likely wondering if she would even live to see them enjoy the beach again…wondering how sick the chemo would make her…wondering if her kids would become bitter to the Lord if he did in fact take her home sooner than later. In that moment, I was sharing in her suffering. As depressing as it sounds, I actually am glad that God worked it out this way. He allowed my thoughts to be turned to Him for 8 days. My mind was not cluttered with how I needed my house to be decorated better, or how I needed to figure something else out to get my 7 month old baby to start sleeping through the night, or which outfits we should wear so that we could have a perfect family beach photo. My thoughts were focused on the brokenness of this world and allowed me to cry out to God. My thoughts were turned toward Holly's family and how I could love them like Jesus loves me. It was perfect. It was needed. It refocused me on Him.
When your friend has cancer, what are you supposed to do? What do you say, what do you not say? How do you respond? Unfortunately, I didn't have my magic 8 ball with me to tell me how to do this cancer thing. So, I just did what I would want someone to do for me and I began to love and serve the crap out of Holly. Not literally, of course ;) I felt so much love for Holly already because she was my friend. It is easy to love your friends, family, and the people that meet all of your needs and love you right back with the same amount of commitment that you put into relationships. But we are not called to just love when it comes easily and is a guaranteed return. As followers of Christ, we are called to lay our lives down for our brothers and sisters…not just in speech, but with our actions. We are called to love one another with a sacrificial and pure love…a love that asks for nothing in return. I knew that serving others came naturally to me and that this would be easy to think of ways to help her and love her…but I wanted to love her like Christ has called me to love her. I was confronted with my sin…my insecurities and constant need to be praised and affirmed, my pride of getting the credit of doing things well and being everything to everyone. I prayed for strength to love and serve her well…even if she ever got too sick to say thank you…even if she distanced herself from me…even if she wanted to be alone….even if she didn't need me.
It was difficult seeing her in so much pain and worry and sadness. Her heart was in such a dark place of hopelessness and yet she was still clinging to Jesus and His truths with her tired grasp. Holly is a strong woman, much stronger than I am. To see her in this place was hard. She believed God was good, but that didn't make the pain go away. She trusted in God's sovereignty and knew that he had already orchestrated the plans for her life, but that didn't keep the tears from flowing. She believed that God was loving, but that didn't keep the doubts away. Although it has been really hard for me to see Holly struggle and worry and be completely exhausted by the fears of the unknown, I appreciate her ability to keep it real. She is not going around everywhere saying "Praise God" with a smile plastered across her face. Instead, she is constantly asking God to give her a glimpse of joy each day and praising Him for all of the things He has done so far. She hasn't gone out and gotten a tattoo of Romans 15:13 on her wrist. Instead, she is writing God's word on her heart by reading scripture over and over and over and asking God to make His truths alive to her. It takes lots of creativity on my part to make her laugh these days. Sometimes she doesn't feel like talking, and she won't pretend to. She is the real deal, and I appreciate that so much. So many of us believe the lie that the only way to be strong is to not struggle…so we pretend that we don't have struggles. All that does is create a barrier to deep, rich friendships. Instead of struggling honestly with each other and coming together in prayer for God to be our light in the seemingly never-ending tunnel of darkness, we pretend we are "fine" and "happy," creating a costly barrier to deep Christ-centered friendships.
Throughout this journey, I have tried to point out the "wins" that Holly has had each day. Maybe it is small, like no puking today! Or maybe it is big, like someone delivering prayer cards secretly to her doorstep. I'm sure she appreciates these "win reminders" on some days, but I'm sure there are other days that she just gets annoyed and wants to just let me know that certain days are just going to suck. I have never wanted her to feel like I am trying to make light of her situation and get her to pretend that the "sucky days" don't suck. They do. Cancer sucks. But with all of the sucks in life, there are so many things that are better. God is better, and he has done some amazing things in so many people's lives through Holly's journey in just this past month.
"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Our sinful nature will always find the sucky things to focus on, but God's will for us is to rejoice. I rejoice in the friendship that Holly and I have and that God has allowed me to play a small part in her story by helping point her to Jesus by loving her in a sacrificial way that can only come from Him. I have been blessed to share in this suffering.
As a friend of someone who has cancer…here are a few tips:
· Offer to be the "go-to" coordinator
o This will be lots of work and require lots of organization on your part if you want to do it well. Your friend will not have the mental energy to get past more than the next hour in their day, so being the "go-to" person when others want to help will be a huge relief to them. They are not thinking about what days they need meals or when they think they will want someone to come visit them. Instead they are facing their new reality, worrying about when they will lose their hair and how their family will be taken care of. The LAST thing they will be able to think about is how and when they need help.
o Coordinate as much as possible
o Even if your friend is the most organized person in the world, they are about to NOT be!!! Do not wait on them to start planning meals, childcare and other needs. Be proactive and get things going without getting approval on every single detail.
o Be flexible with your schedule and plans. Things will come up, appointments will change, and your friend will rely on you to be there to help. On the times that you can't be there, have a few back up options and helpers that you can call on when needed.
o Meal train is a great free meal calendar that you can email out to get several people involved in bringing meals
o Gift Cards for restaurants are SUPER helpful! With the new crazy schedule of driving to and from doctor appointments, dropping kids off here and there, gift cards will come in handy.
o Get the right help in the right ways
o Different people will have different needs and the way that the needs are met will look different from person to person. When coordinating help, remember that all help is not always helpful.
o Instead of offering to have several people come clean their house when they normally have a company clean their house, try to gather donations so that they can get that service more frequently during the months of chemo.
o Instead of setting up people bringing meals every night, organize a restaurant gift card donation so that they can have the flexibility of getting food whenever.
o Offer to help with specific things instead of just telling them you are available to help.
· Get everyone involved in SOME WAY
o You will be overwhelmed with the amount of people that want to help out. Not everyone is going to be able to drive your friend to chemo or watch their kids, so be sure to create ways so that everyone can feel like they are still helping and feel involved.
o Cards of encouragement are a great thing to get people involved in. Your friend will never get tired of opening their front door or mail box to a sweet card filled with something to encourage them that day. Even if it is from someone who they don't know very well, it will still be a blessing to them.
o Keep people updated on the good and the bad, and continue to ask for specific ways they can be praying.
§ Communicate to everyone to ask permission before visiting, giving advice, asking tons of questions…sometimes these ways of helping can be overwhelming at the wrong time, but a blessing at the right time. You will be key in making sure these things happen when the timing is appropriate.
· You can't serve from an empty plate
o While you are trying to be everything to your friend, remember that you need to be filling your plate with truth, encouragement, and time with others that can pour into you. You will get tired, you will feel overwhelmed, and you will need to re-fill yourself so that you can love and serve your friend more effectively.
o Don't be afraid to ask others to help you so that you can help your friend. That will still be a way for others to serve a purpose by meeting a need.
Things to say
· I'm so sorry
· Let them know specific things you have prayed or are praying over them
· Be honest. Don't just say things because it seems like the right thing to say…be real!
Things NOT to say
· Praying for you, when you really aren't…again, be honest!
· Let me know if you need anything (again, offer specific ways that you can help instead of putting the responsibility on them)
· This too shall pass, Everything will be fine, You need to have a better attitude…..none of these things are helpful
These are just some things I have learned along the way. No matter how much you do and how hard you work trying to make the pain go away, you will not be your friend's Savior. They will love you and appreciate all that you are doing, but you will not be able to take the cancer away. You might be able to walk with them every step of the way through their battle until they are cancer free, but it won't be you that heals them. No matter how many times you make them laugh or feel loved, they will still have hard days and it will have nothing to do with you. They will want to curl up and sleep some days, and there will not be anything you can say or do to make it all better. But, you can pray for them. You can still love them with the fiercest love you have ever given to someone. You can still be their person, their friend, but not their Savior. Jesus was their Savior before you or cancer came into their life, and He still is. It will be your job as their friend to keep loving them and pointing you both back to Jesus over and over again…because Jesus, this is all for you.