Congregational Cancer Care

Congregational programs to help people living with cancer


Can you recommend any congregational programs that help people living with cancer? I was treated for cancer a while ago, and people with cancer often come to me looking for support.



You have identified one of the key areas of providing support for a person going through such a scary diagnosis as cancer—meeting and talking with someone who has gone through a similar experience and who is willing to talk about it. This is the approach used to help women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Often other breast cancer survivors contact them to talk about issues related to their cancer and how their lives are affected.

The church can be a good place to talk about one’s worries and situation, because people who receive a diagnosis already know others at church and have a certain level of trust built up. The church can also put into place prayer chains and many helping hands to support a cancer patient with meals, housecleaning, transportation to chemotherapy, and so on. The online network Caring Bridge is another good way to keep people posted about what is happening with someone undergoing treatment in a way that lets the patient or family manage what information is shared.

If the pastor is also willing to preach about the spiritual issues that go along with cancer and other life-threatening illness, such as fear and trust, meaning and purpose, this can be a great comfort. Visits and cards from the pastor or lay people (alone or as a team, depending on the situation and need) can be very helpful and supportive. No one who is part of a church should feel all alone!

Depending on the size and constituents of your congregation, you may find it of value to develop a cancer support group within your congregation or refer folks to support groups elsewhere. Many hospitals have cancer support groups, and there are camps for kids with cancer. One well-known and well-respected family of support groups is Gilda’s Clubs (named for the comedian Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer at a relatively young age). They have clubs all around the country and you can find one in your area by searching online for “Gilda’s Club.” These clubs provide free support to people living with cancer and to their families and friends. You can refer folks to groups like this, or develop your own with elements that are helpful, such as presentations by health providers, social time, and emotional support.

According to the American Cancer Society, about 1.6 million new cancer cases were diagnosed in 2012, not including noninvasive cancer (of any site except urinary bladder) and basal and squamous cell skin cancers. Currently, about 18 million people living in the US have had, or currently have, cancer. This is about 6 percent of the population. Given that churches generally have more older members, the percentage of people you are working with who have cancer may be higher than the national average.

Another part of cancer support is cancer prevention. The American Cancer Society reminds us that all cancers caused by tobacco use and heavy alcohol consumption could be prevented (about 10 percent of all cancer diagnosed). About half of all cancer deaths are from forms of cancer that can be far more easily treated when detected early through screening (colon, rectum, cervix and breast). Also, the Cancer Society states that about one-third of the cancer deaths each year are related to obesity, physical inactivity, and poor nutrition. And protecting the skin from sun and tanning damage could prevent many of the more than two million skin cancers diagnosed annually. Your success as a health educator (for example, with articles on sunscreen or samples available at coffee hour) could prevent many of the cancers of the future.

Whether a cancer might have been prevented or not, all a person with cancer needs is your support. The church must be a place where that support is provided from all quarters.


Excerpt from Health Ministry Advice for Everyone by Deborah Patterson

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