Marissa Henley, the author of Loving Your Friend through Cancer: Moving beyond “I’m Sorry” to Meaningful Support, loves to write and speak about suffering and God’s character. She lives in Arkansas with her husband, three kids, and one disobedient dog. She’d love to connect with you at www.marissahenley.com.

T4L: Hello, Marissa! Can you please tell us about your life, marriage, and ministry?

Marissa: I’ve been married for twenty years to my high school sweetheart, Noel, and we have three kids. Lately, I’ve been working to spread the word about Loving Your Friend through Cancer, but I also do some other things. I write a weekly devotional on my blog called “No Matter What Monday”. It gives us a truth about God’s character to cling to, no matter what our week brings. I’m also involved with ministry to women in my local church, and I’m prayerfully considering what God has for me to do next.

T4L: Can you please tell us a bit about your book, Loving Your Friend through Cancer: Moving beyond “I’m Sorry” to Meaningful Support, why you wrote it, and how you hope it is received?

Marissa: I’m a cancer survivor—I battled a rare cancer called angiosarcoma about eight years ago. And I often get questions from friends when their friends are diagnosed. They want to know how to support their friends, what to say, what not to say, and how to help. After having several of those conversations, I realized people want to know—and need to know—this information! I hope this book will be a helpful resource for the body of Christ as we strive to walk alongside our friends with cancer well.

T4L: You write that every person is different, every family is different, and every cancer is different. That’s an important point. How can we begin to care for our family, or even our friends or fellow church members, who may have cancer?

Marissa: This was one challenging part of writing the book, knowing that every situation will be different. When I was diagnosed, I had young children—my kids were 6, 4, and 18 months old. Most of my treatment took place in another state, so we had a lot of logistical challenges. We needed a great deal of help, and that isn’t typical of every situation. So I’d encourage people to consider your friend’s needs, consider the closeness of your relationship to her (or him), and ask God how He wants you to help in her (his) situation.

Evaluating the closeness of your relationship is an important step. You may offer to do something that’s too intimate for your friendship, or conversely, you might think that you aren’t close enough to be able to serve her/him. Whether you’re a close friend or an acquaintance, you do have a role to play in her/his support network.

T4L: What long-term strategies can pastors and others caring for people living with cancer take to help walk with people living with cancer?

Marissa: I think one of the most important things that we can do as Christian friends would be to improve our listening skills. This is something I’m still working on myself, but one of the verses I try to remind myself of often is Proverbs 10:19. It says, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”

One of the questions I hear the most on the topic is, “How can I avoid saying the wrong thing to my friend with cancer?” And this is a real problem—often we’re saying the wrong thing and not helping our friends. One of the ways to avoid saying the wrong thing is to just keep our mouths shut and listen.

So it’s important to sit with our friends in their pain, listen to them, and not feel like we need to have an answer for everything they’re feeling. That’s hard for me, because there are some great answers in God’s Word! Sometimes I’m eager to rush my friend who’s hurting to a place of deeper trust and dependence on Christ so she will feel better.

We need to encourage our friend to trust God, and we know that He will use her/his suffering to deepen her/his faith. He did that for me in my suffering. But that is going to be a lengthy process—probably months or even years. As the Lord is doing that, we need to be willing to listen to our friend without having all the answers. Building our listening skills is the most important thing we can do to prepare to be a friend to someone with cancer.

In addition to becoming better listeners, we need to make sure we’re living with enough margin in our lives so that we’re able to serve others. I know sometimes I can get my schedule so booked that when my car runs low on gas, I start to panic because I don’t have time to stop and fill the tank. And that is a problem! If I don’t have time to stop for gas, I don’t have time to take a meal to someone or visit a friend in the hospital.

Lastly, we need to know what the Bible says about suffering and community. That way, when difficult things happen, we understand the importance of rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn. We understand our role as the body of Christ and the importance of showing up for those who are sick and suffering. Also, knowing what the Bible says about suffering will help us know how to encourage them with the truth of God’s Word and not buy into the false ideas that often come up about suffering, even in Christian circles.

T4L: Great point! One can never go wrong with allowing the Bible to be his/her guide in responses to those in suffering. What are some of the struggles you faced in dealing with your cancer yourself?

Marissa: Because of my cancer treatment, I ended up living in Houston two out of every three weeks for several months while receiving chemo on a clinical trial. Then I spent another five weeks straight receiving radiation there as well. My husband and three young kids were back home in Arkansas. So we needed a lot of help with the kids, and we needed a lot of food. We had meals three times a week for about 8 months. Our church family was small, so a friend set up a rotation for our church, my parents’ church, and then other friends and neighbors. We had a small army of people committed to feeding us, and we were so thankful!

In addition to the logistical struggles, there were also emotional struggles. My prognosis wasn’t good, and I didn’t expect to live very long. I thought I would make it through that first battle, but I expected the cancer to come back quickly and take my life while my kids were still little. I still can’t believe I’m here in 2018—I definitely didn’t think I’d have this many years with my family. It’s a surreal experience living in a year you didn’t think you’d see. But back in 2010-2011, when I didn’t think I’d live this long, I really had to wrestle through what that could mean for my family. I wasn’t afraid to die, but I was scared for my kids. I didn’t want that to be their story—losing their mom at a young age.

I was confident in God’s goodness, faithfulness, and sovereignty, but I knew that didn’t guarantee the outcome I wanted. It was hard to wrestle through my emotions, and I needed close friends who would listen to me say difficult things. I needed to say things like, “If I don’t make it, I want my husband to remarry quickly, and don’t get in the way of that.” I can’t imagine how hard that was for my friends to hear. But as a young 34-year-old mom with angiosarcoma, I needed friends to sit and cry with me and listen to me wrestle through those difficult emotions.

It was hard, but the Lord gave me so much comfort and peace during that time. He sustained me and gave me an even greater confidence in His character. Even though I couldn’t fathom what life could look like for my kids if I didn’t survive, I knew He would provide for them and continue to be good and faithful to them. I never despaired because the Holy Spirit was at work in my heart, speaking those words of comfort and bringing scriptures to my mind.  

T4L: Wow! I can’t even fathom what that must have been like to go through all that. What kinds of questions should pastor and church members ask that demonstrate care and concern to those living with cancer?

Marissa: I think we need to be really careful with our questions, and there are a couple of things that I’d recommend we think about before we ask a question.

First, we need to ask ourselves if the question communicates concern or curiosity. This is hard for me, because I love information. If a friend is going through something, especially if it’s medical, I want to know everything. I want to hear what her doctor said, what her side effects will be, and what her prognosis is. But those questions are all to satisfy my need for information. If I’m there to serve her, I need to be asking questions that will show her my concern, not satisfy my curiosity. Supporting her should be my only goal.

I shouldn’t be asking, “What did your doctor say about your chances for survival?” unless I’m a close friend asking it very carefully. It can come across as being insensitive or even offensive to our friend with cancer. But if we ask, “How are you coping with the news of your cancer diagnosis?” that question will demonstrate our caring and concern. So let’s be careful with the questions we’re asking and how we’re wording them.

The other thing I’d mention about questions is to consider the personal nature of our questions and the closeness of our relationship. Some people share medical details openly; others are more private. If you’ve seen your friend openly share these details on a blog or on social media, she’s probably okay with talking about it. But generally speaking, a good rule of thumb is: if this is a question you would have asked before cancer, it’s probably fine to ask about it now. If you shared about struggles in your marriage before cancer, it’s okay to ask about how her marriage is weathering this storm. If it’s not something you would have asked before cancer, it’s not a good idea to ask now.

My favorite question to ask my friends with cancer is, “How are you today?” I say this instead of “How are you?” because sometimes when someone is going through something difficult, the way we ask that is a very loaded question. We might tilt our head, scrunch up our face, and ask the question loaded with meaning. They know what we’re asking—we’re asking them to pour out all the details of their suffering. But if we ask, “How are you today?” they can answer it in any way they choose. They can tell us about the rough week they’re having, or they can tell us what they had for lunch. That will give us a clue about what they feel like discussing, and we can follow their lead from there.

T4L: That’s very insightful. Thank you for that tip. Say a friend or family member just got the news that they have a chronic or terminal illness and shared it with you or me. What would be an appropriate and caring response be to this news?

Marissa: I would start by acknowledging how terrible the news is and telling them that you’re sorry. Try to fight any temptation to minimize the pain they’re going through or put a “positive spin” on it. I’ve heard another author say to avoid saying any sentence that starts with “At least”. Don’t say, “At least they caught it early”, or “At least your children are already grown”. If it starts with “At least”, it’s probably minimizing their pain.

Next, communicate how much you love them. Let them know you care about them and that you’re in this with them for the long haul. Then let them know the action you’re going to take to support them. This will vary depending on the closeness of your relationship. But you might say that you will be praying for them and ask for specific prayer requests. You can let them know that you’re going to bring them dinner next week or come over tomorrow to sit and cry with her/him—whatever is most appropriate for the closeness of your relationship. At some point, you should encourage your friend with the truth of God’s Word. Biblical encouragement is so important, but we need to be sensitive about the timing of it. Our friend might be ready to hear it right away, or we might need to allow some time and space before they’re in a place where they will be receptive to those words.

T4L: How can we be a good friend to someone living with cancer and help them with their physical, emotional, spiritual and other needs they might have?

Marissa: As far as physical and logistical needs, I think the best thing to do is make a really specific offer of help. When I was first diagnosed, I heard so many people say, “Just let me know how I can help.” I was thankful that they wanted to help me, but I was so overwhelmed. It was difficult to match my specific needs with general offers of help. It was more helpful when someone made a really specific offer and told me when they could help or a task they could help with—it made it easy for me to take them up on it.

So consider saying, “I’d love to bring you a meal next week. Would Monday or Wednesday work better?” Or, “I have some free time next Friday. I’d love to come take your kids to the park or help you with some housework.” Also, if we can offer to help with something on a recurring basis, this will be especially helpful if her/his treatment is lasting for several weeks or months. She/he doesn’t just need someone to drive her/his kids to school this Thursday, she/he needs someone to drive her/his kids to school every Thursday. So if we can help on a repeating basis, that will really serve her/him well.

When it comes to emotional and spiritual needs, we need to let our friends know that we are praying for them—and we need to actually pray for them. They will be hearing, “I’m praying for you!” so often that sometimes it doesn’t sound genuine. So I recommend our first step be actually praying for our friend. Second, send her/him a text that says, “You don’t have to write me back, but I wanted to you to know I was praying for you.” And then let her/him know the specific requests you were praying or scripture you prayed for her/him, so she/he knows your words are sincere.

T4L: Great advice! It can also be difficult to navigate the flip-side of illnesses, etc. A friend or family member or someone we may know got news that they now are now cancer free. How can the local church come around cancer survivors and help them learn to face this new reality?

Marissa: It is so important for friends to understand that the challenges do not end when the treatment ends. When you finish treatment and you’re cancer-free, everyone celebrates and praises God. And they should—it’s great news! But it feels like everyone has celebrated and then moved on, but you’re still struggling with the implications of all you’ve been through.

Everyone thought I was fine, but I wasn’t—I was a mess for a really long time as I worked through the physical and emotional damage cancer left behind. I still have things that pop up that are hard for me, eight years later. But especially in the first couple of years, I still struggled around the anniversary of my diagnosis as I remembered those difficult days and how I felt.

Friends need to understand that your friend might be better, but she’s (he’s) not fine. She/he may still be dealing with physical changes, and she/he will definitely deal with emotional changes. Life is never the same as it was before you heard those words, “You have cancer.” Let her/him know you’re still there for her/him and you’re still willing to listen to her/him.

It’s also helpful to find out what her/his follow-up protocol will be with her/his doctors. Some oncologists just say, “Call me if you need something!” Or she/he may have regular tests to check for recurrence. I traveled to Houston every three months for checkups, and those appointments were terrifying. I would shut down emotionally and withdraw from friendships. I also struggled with guilt because I had survived and didn’t want to continue to be needy or seem ungrateful. But I needed my friends to understand my struggles. One of my friends even brought me a meal sometimes before those appointments, and it meant so much to me to know that she cared.

T4L: There’s a lot we haven’t covered in the course of this interview about your excellent book, Marissa. As we wrap up this conversation, can you give us four or five of the biggest takeaways you hope readers will take grasp as they read your book?

Marissa: First of all, everyone has a role to play. Whether you’re a best friend or an acquaintance, the Lord is going to use the entire body of Christ to weave together a tapestry of support, and you are one of those threads. Whether you’re praying for her/him, bringing her/him a meal, or listening to her/him, everyone has a role to play.

Second, listening is so important, so be patient without rushing in with answers. Next, remember that our friends need to hear encouragement from God’s Word, but we need to be careful when we are sharing those verses and which verses we’re sharing. For me, the verses that encouraged me the most were those that reminded me of God’s presence with me and God’s care for me in my suffering.

The last thing that I’d say—and I hope this comes through in the pages of the book—is that I want to constantly point people to Christ as we love our friends through cancer. We aren’t going to get this all right. We’re going to do or say the wrong thing and make things awkward. We will need to give each other grace and forgiveness. We aren’t going to be the perfect friend(s). But our friend does have a perfect Friend—Jesus Christ—who will never disappoint her/him or let her/him down. We need to fix our eyes on Him and point our friends to Him as we walk through suffering. We can trust Him to use our imperfect efforts as part of His perfect plan to care for our friends.

T4L: Wonderful points and insight. Thank you so much for these great answers, Marissa!