Counseling the cancer patient

As a pastor you are faced from time to time with parishioners who are facing difficult health situations—maybe for themselves or for a close family member or friend.

Fred Hardinge, DrPH, RD, is an associate director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.

As a pastor you are faced from time to time with parishioners who are facing difficult health situations—maybe for themselves or for a close family member or friend.

For example: Susan, a young mother with two children and a loving husband, was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer in 2010. She was told by her physician that surgical removal of the lump would be the best treatment. The idea of surgery frightened her. Was there not another option? After all, she loved the Lord and had tried to live a healthy lifestyle all her life.

Bewildered and shocked by this news, she and her husband went home and began searching on the Internet for alternatives. It did not take long to find many options. There were clinics and lifestyle centers that treated breast cancer with “natural” methods like massage, hydrotherapy, and special diets. In addition, they found many other products and supplements designed to treat breast cancer. Each one promised a complete cure without the need for surgery.

They grew more confused and did not know what to do. Should she have surgery or opt for the “natural treatments”? They went back to her physician, and he gently affirmed her need of surgery.

Online they found many testimonies from people who said they had been cured from breast cancer by one means or another—without surgery. They talked to many friends and family members. Each one had a different opinion. Their confusion grew. What should she do?

They went to their pastor seeking help. After listening, he encouraged them to try some alternatives first, saying, “They probably won’t hurt, and they might help!”

They decided she would go to a lifestyle center that assured her that if she followed their plan, she could be healed. She adopted an animal-free diet along with other important health habits. The regimen of massage and hydrotherapy was relaxing. After about four weeks she returned home, faithfully following what she had learned, with the hope she had done the right thing.

It came as an awful surprise four years later to realize she had a very rapidly growing lump. At that point they solicited funds from their family, friends, and church so she could go to a treatment center in another country, where she was placed on a raw food diet and a unique hydrotherapy regimen for four months. The lump seemed to shrink, and she returned home and resumed her job.

About six months later she again had a rapidly growing lump. After gathering funds from friends and family, she went to yet another center promising a cure. There she was placed on a very strict program of drinking juice, walking, sunbathing, devotions, deep breathing, and hydrotherapy. The growth seemed to abate a bit, and she went home believing she was healed.

Sadly, in a short time the lump was growing again, complicated by back pain. She visited her physician, and after X-rays and an MRI, she was told she had stage IV bone cancer in her spine. Nothing could be done now. All that could be offered was help with pain control.

Her prognosis is not good. These heart-wrenching circumstances are all too familiar—even in our churches. How can you best provide support and guidance to families like this? Here are five specific ways you, as a pastor, can provide wise and supportive advice to those in these unfortunate situations:

1.Always point them to the Great Physician. Never fail to pray with and for those afflicted with cancer. Do not just assure your parishioners you are praying for them—pray with them often and personally. Share promises of hope from the Bible with them.

2.Encourage your parishioners to follow the advice of their physicians. Often, as Seventh-day Adventists, we misunderstand the role of life-style. Healthy habits practiced over years of time are highly likely to reduce the risk of disease. However, those same preventive habits may have little impact in treating acute disease.

3.Recognize that your ministerial training does not qualify you to provide medical or treatment advice. Remember, just as you have spent years in training for your profession, so have our physicians spent years learning about the human body, diseases, and treatments. Do not be tempted to think that anecdotal stories or a few hours of searching on the Internet can make you qualified.

4.Provide practical assistance when needed and desired. This can include transportation to appointments, childcare during procedures and tests, or help with household chores. Obviously, your role may primarily be coordination of this assistance.

5.Familiarize yourself with community resources for both information and support groups. Most communities have valuable resource groups to support those who are in treatment and recovery.

We thank God for the team of professional chaplains, godly pastors, and committed physicians who are often called to be head, heart, and hands in the provision of love and support to church and community members during these difficult seasons in their lives.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Fred Hardinge, DrPH, RD, is an associate director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.

January 2017

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