Posted On December 24, 2018

What Not to Say To Your Friend With Cancer (And What to Say Instead)

by | Dec 24, 2018 | Facing Grief, Illness, and Loss

I spent most of my young adult years quoting Romans 8:28 to friends and family who were suffering. This promise from God’s Word has always been one of my favorite verses: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (ESV). For years, the truth of God’s sovereignty over all circumstances has been a rock I can cling to, no matter what life brings. I’ve often wielded this truth like a sword when I felt that someone might be slipping in their trust as they walked through suffering.

Then I was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive cancer called angiosarcoma the day before my 34th birthday. I had three young children—ages 6, 4, and 18 months—and the prognosis wasn’t encouraging. As I walked through the months of intense treatment and years of uncertainty which followed, I treasured the truth of God’s sovereignty even more than before. But hearing others tell me “God has a plan” didn’t bring comfort in my pain.

I’m not alone in feeling this way. In fact, when I talk to cancer patients and survivors about the unhelpful words they’ve heard from friends, sentiments like “God has a plan” and “God uses everything for good” top the list. Every single cancer survivor I know has heard these words from friends. We’re saying it often, but it’s failing to provide comfort to our friends with cancer.

As I wrestled with an uncertain future following my cancer diagnosis, I found comfort in knowing that God had good plans for my family and me. I knew that not even the most aggressive cancer or the worst prognosis could thwart His purposes for us. Clinging to that truth kept me from falling into despair, but it didn’t guarantee the outcome I was hoping for. I knew His ways were (are) not my ways (Isaiah 55:8).

When the Holy Spirit applied this truth of God’s Word to my heart, it brought comfort and peace. But when my friends said, “God has a plan” it felt like they were saying, “It will all be okay.” I was grieving, knowing that life would never be the same if I survived and that my loved ones’ lives would be tragically altered if I died. I didn’t need to hear that it would all be okay. I needed friends who understood the gravity of my diagnosis.

Why Romans 8:28 Doesn’t Comfort Our Hurting Friends

Yes, God has a plan and works all things together for the good of His children. However, I’d encourage you to not let these be the first words that pop out of your mouth when supporting a friend with cancer. Here’s why.

First, quoting Romans 8:28 or similar sentiments will make your friend feel like you’re trying to fix her problem rather than seeking to understand her pain. We often turn to Romans 8:28 because we see our friend’s heartache and think, “I have an answer for this.” We hope our answer will ease his/her suffering or bolster his/her faith as he/she endures it. But when a friend faces a life-threatening illness, he/she needs compassionate friends, not pedantic answers.

Second, your friend will feel like you’re dismissing his/her pain or rushing his/her grief. In his/her mind, he/she will hear you saying, “You must have forgotten that God is sovereign—otherwise you wouldn’t be so upset.” God’s sovereignty might be giving him/her the courage to get out of bed in the morning, but it doesn’t take away his/her pain. Even when we trust that God’s plans are good, our difficult circumstances cause us to cry out in pain and lament. As Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus, we can also weep with our friends (John 11:35). Your friend needs you to sit with him/her in his/her sadness or fear, acknowledge his/her pain, and cry with him/her.

Most importantly, Romans 8:28 will sound like you’re preaching at him/her rather than comforting him/her. If giving comfort is our goal, we need to choose verses that will meet that objective. Even though Romans 8:28 is inerrant, infallible, and unconditionally true, it’s not the best Scripture to turn to first in every situation. There are reasons why we often hear the same passages used repeatedly at weddings, and we hear different passages at funerals. Have you ever heard a pastor launch into a homily from Judges as a bride and groom stand before him? Certain Scriptures are most appropriate in certain situations.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t share Bible verses with our hurting friends. After we’ve listened compassionately, we should prayerfully consider how to speak words of comfort and support. Our friend needs to be reminded of God’s promises, and there is nothing more powerful than Scripture. His living and active Word gives strength to weary hearts (see Hebrew 4:12, Isaiah 40:29). But rather than saying that God has a plan, I recommend sharing verses that communicate God’s presence and care.

Verses that Bring Comfort

The Scriptures that brought me the most comfort as I battled cancer reminded me that God knew my suffering, cared for me in it, and provided a safe refuge from the storm. The Psalms often provided this balm for my hurting soul. When your friend with cancer is overwhelmed, anxious, or sad, try sharing one of these promises.

God knows his/her suffering. Every one of his/her tears is seen by Him. “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Psalm 56:8). God is present with him/her in his/her suffering. He/she is never alone. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). God is a refuge in the midst of her suffering. She/he is safely in His hands. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea” (Psalm 46:1-2).

God is the strength he/she needs to endure her suffering. She/he has the help of the One who created the heavens and the earth. “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2).

God is faithful in all circumstances. She/he can have confidence in His promises. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23). God will give him/her His perfect peace. She/he can anchor his/her soul to the everlasting Rock. “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock” (Isaiah 26:3-4).

Our friends may run quickly to Romans 8:28 for comfort, or they may end up there as they process their pain with the Lord. We can trust the Spirit’s timing as He works in the hearts of His children. In the meantime, let’s be friends who walk prayerfully and compassionately alongside our friends with cancer (and/or other life-threatening illnesses). This isn’t easy, and we will make missteps along the way. We can trust the One who loves our friends perfectly to use us as His instruments of comfort and care.

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