Cancer Care

June 21st, 2011
A scientist researches possible treatments for brain cancer. © Argonne National Laboratory | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons License.

Cancer affects millions of people worldwide. Cancer is the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells in the human body, and it can be caused by external factors such as tobacco use, exposure to radiation and chemicals, and infectious organisms. Cancer can also be caused by internal factors such as inherited mutations and hormones. The National Institutes of Health estimate the cost of cancer in 2010 was $263.8 billion; however, the cost in terms of emotional, mental, and spiritual devastation is beyond measure.

John Richards (not his real name) has brain cancer. He has had it for seven years and has fought it aggressively with chemotherapy and radiation. For a time, the combination worked and pushed the cancer into remission. However, this past fall, a test revealed that the cancer, lodged at the base of his spine, had returned. In order to get treatment, John had to drive 200 miles roundtrip every three weeks. When that therapy did not work, his family decided to return to the hospital that originally treated the cancer.

This summer, John and his family will be moving from Michigan to Connecticut. “I have cancer,” Richards said, “but cancer doesn’t have me. It hasn’t robbed me of my sense of humor, or of my music, or of my love for my wife and kids.”

Listen and Be There

Although cancer is not contagious, people with the disease often feel shunned. “I think people were afraid to talk with me,” said John Richards, “because they didn’t know what to say.” The Reverend Walter Wangerin, Jr., a Lutheran pastor who now teaches literature and creative writing at Valparaiso University in Indiana, offers several suggestions in his recent book, Letters From the Land of Cancer. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006 and began writing letters to his friends and family.

What food can be brought to a person recovering from cancer? Try watermelon, suggests Cathy R., a cancer survivor, as it is often appealing to people undergoing chemotherapy. What can we do to support cancer patients? There are people who shave their heads in solidarity with others who have lost their hair during chemotherapy. Richards, who like Cathy had small children while undergoing treatment, said that childcare was a God-send. “Friends who listened and encouraged, and those who had gone on the journey before (my cancer ‘mentors’) were the best of all,” Cathy wrote.

Christians believe in the power of prayer, and praying for the sick is part of our calling. Richards, an occasional church attendee, has a brother who is a pastor and has people praying for him around the world. When asked if he believes in the power of prayer, Richards replied, “Sure.”

Even those with pastoral care training can struggle to know what to say to someone enduring cancer and its harsh treatments., the website of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, offers several helpful suggestions on what to say and do. For example, do not say to a person with cancer, “I know just how you feel.” Instead, say, “If you ever feel like talking, I’m here for you.” Do not say, “How much time are the doctors giving you?” Instead, make plans for the future: a dinner and a movie next weekend or an out-of-town trip next month.

The website also suggests forming support teams, something churches would be uniquely qualified to do. Set up a team of people; and create a support calendar where activities might include grocery shopping, driving the person to the doctor’s office, doing yard work, cleaning the house, going out for a meal, or other items. “Continuing friendships and normal activities after a cancer diagnosis is a great way to aid the healing process,” they note. “Friends need encouragement and support both during and after treatment for their cancer. They are trying to find their ‘new normal.’ ”

Learn the Facts

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), in 2006, more than 11 million people with a history of cancer were living in the United States. About 1.5 million new cases of cancer were expected to be reported in 2010, not including basal- and squamos-cell skin cancers, which the ACS notes are not required to be reported. “More than 2 million people were treated for [skin] cancers in 2006,” their 2010 report states.

The most common form of cancer is lung cancer, with 222,520 new cases estimated in 2010. For women, the most commonly reported cancer is breast cancer (207,090 new cases estimated in 2010), while for men, prostate cancer leads the way (217,730 new cases).

The good news is that the five-year survival rate from all forms of cancer is on the rise. In 1975, a person diagnosed with cancer had a 50/50 chance of surviving five years. In the 1999–2005 time period, the survival rate climbed to 65 percent. The American Cancer Society credits earlier detection and improvements in treatment options as the reason for the increase.

The bad news is that people still die from cancer. In 2010, an estimated 569,490 people in the United States died from cancer, or about 1,500 per day. Cancer is the second-leading cause of death behind heart disease, accounting for about one out of every four deaths in this country.

A Short History of Cancer

Somewhere around 2500 B.C., a scribe wrote down the collected teachings of an Egyptian physician named Imhotep. The papyrus was discovered in 1862 and translated in 1930; and it contains 48 cases of disease, broken bones, and dislocated vertebrae. Case 45 is the first recorded example of cancer: “If you examine [a case] having bulging masses on [the] breast and you find they have spread over his breast.”

A “bulging mass in the breast” is a vivid description of cancer, writes Siddhartha Mukherjee in his new book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Every case in the papyrus, Mukherjee notes, was followed by some sort of treatment except for Case 45. For therapy in this case, Imhotep wrote, “There is none.”

Around 440 B.C., cancer again appeared, this time in the writing of the Greek historian Herodotus. He recorded the story of Atossa, the queen of Persia, who noticed a bleeding lump in her breast.

In Peru, the remains of members of the Chiribaya tribe have been preserved by a unique climate that mummifies human bodies almost as if they were frozen. In 1990, Arthur Aufderheide, a paleopathologist from the University of Minnesota in Duluth, examined some of the 1,000-year-old remains and found a “bulbous mass” in the upper left arm of a 30-year- old woman.

Mukherjee quotes Aufderheide, noting that there is no “early history” of cancer because “cancer is an age-related disease––sometimes exponentially so.” The risk of breast cancer, Mukherjee writes, is about 1 in 400 for a 30-year-old woman; it is 1 in 9 for a woman of 70. “In most ancient societies,” he writes, “people didn’t live long enough to get cancer.”

In 1900, tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in America, with pneumonia coming in a strong second. Cancer was seventh. By 1940 , cancer was second, a position it still currently holds.

Can Cancer Be Prevented?

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) notes several factors that can determine whether a person contracts cancer. To reduce your risk, the AICR says to do three things: Be physically active 30 minutes or more a day; get to and maintain a healthy weight; and limit red meat and avoid processed foods.

Lung cancer is the most easily prevented cancer today. The ACS states that in 2010 there would be 171,000 cancer deaths caused by tobacco. In addition, about one third of the more than half million people who died of cancer in 2010 could be linked to obesity, poor nutrition, and/or physical inactivity.

Early screening is also credited with saving thousands of lives. In 2010, I had my second colonoscopy because my father is a survivor of colon cancer. The ACS guideline for colorectal cancer screening suggests that men and women start screenings at age 50. For women, clinical breast examinations should begin in their 20’s and 30’s; annual mammographies should begin at age 40.

Our churches can do much to care for those currently afflicted by cancer, but we can also help people learn about and practice healthy lifestyles to help prevent the disease in the first place.


See also the entry on Cancer Patients in the Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling, now accessible for free in the Ministry Matters Library.

This article is excerpted from FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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