A Word from The Man Behind the Words
by Cecil Murphey
When Shirley walked in from the garage, she didn’t have to say a word: I read the diagnosis in her eyes. I grabbed her and held her tightly for several seconds. When I released her, she didn’t cry. The unshed tears glistened, but that was all.
I felt emotionally paralyzed and helpless, and I couldn’t understand my reaction. After all, I was a professional. As a former pastor and volunteer hospital chaplain, I had been around many cancer patients. I’d seen people at their lowest and most vulnerable. As a writing instructor, I helped one woman write her cancer-survival book. Shirley and I had been caregivers for Shirley’s older sister for months before she died of colon cancer.
All of that happened before cancer became personal to me–before my wife learned she needed a mastectomy. To make it worse, Shirley was in the high-risk category because most of her blood relatives had died of some form of cancer. Years earlier, she had jokingly said, “In our family, we grow things.”
In the days after the diagnosis and before her surgery, I went to a local bookstore and to the public library. I found dozens of accounts, usually by women, about their battle and survival. I pushed aside the novels that ended in a person’s death. A few books contained medical or technical information. I searched on-line and garnered useful information–but I found nothing that spoke to me on how to cope with the possible loss of the person I loved most in this world.
Our story ends happily: Shirley has started her tenth year as a cancer survivor. Not only am I grateful, but I remember my pain and confusion during those days. That concerns me enough to reach out to others who also feel helpless as they watch a loved one face the serious diagnosis of cancer.
That’s why I wrote When Someone You Love Has Cancer. I want to encourage relatives and friends and also to offer practical suggestions as they stay at the side of those they love.
The appendix offers specific things for them to do and not to do–and much of that information came about because of the way people reacted around us.
It’s a terrible situation for anyone to have cancer; it’s a heavy burden for us who deeply love those with cancer.
by Cecil Murphey
Interview with Cecil Murphey
Because her doctor put Shirley into the high-risk category, I felt helpless. To me, helpless means hating the situation, wanting to make it better, but admitting there was nothing I could do for her.
2. On that same page you also write, “One thing we learned: God was with us and strengthened us through the many weeks of uncertainty and pain.” How did you get from feeling helpless to that assurance?
Shirley and I sat down one day and I put my arm around her. “The only way I know how I can handle this,” I said, “is to talk about it.” Shirley knows that’s my way of working through puzzling issues. “Let’s consider every possibility.” If her surgeon decided she did not have breast cancer, how would we react? We talked of our reaction if he said, “There is a tumor and it’s obviously benign. Finally, I was able to say, with tears in my eyes, “How do we react if he says the cancer is advanced and you have only a short time to live?” By the time we talked answered that question, I was crying. Shirley had tears in her eyes, but remained quite calm. “I’m ready to go whenever God wants to take me,” she said. She is too honest not to have meant those words. As I searched her face, I saw calmness and peace. I held her tightly and we prayed together. After that I felt calm. Since then, one of the first things I do when I awaken is to thank God that Shirley and I have at least one more day together.
3. When most people hear the word cancer applied to someone they love, they have strong emotional reactions. What are some of them? What was your reaction when your wife was diagnosed with breast cancer?
As a pastor, a volunteer chaplain, and a friend I’ve encountered virtually every emotional reaction. Some refuse to accept what they hear. Some go inward and are unable to talk. Others start making telephone calls to talk to friends.
Me? I went numb, absolutely numb. That was my old way of dealing with overwhelming emotions. I heard everything but I couldn’t feel anything. It took me almost two weeks before I was able to feel–and to face the possibility that the person I loved most in the world might die.
4. “What can I do for my loved one with cancer?” That’s a good question for us to ask ourselves. How can we be supportive and helpful?
Many think they need to do big things; they don’t. Express your concern and your love.
Be available to talk when the other person needs it–and be even more willing to be silent if your loved one doesn’t want to talk. Don’t ask what you can do; do what you see needs doing. To express loving support in your own way (and we all express love differently) is the best gift you can offer.
5. Why do you urge people not to say, “I know exactly how you feel”?
No one knows how you feel. They may remember how they felt at a certain time. Even if they did know, what help is that to the person with cancer? It’s like saying, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. I know what it’s like and I’m fine now.”
Instead, focus on how the loved one feels. Let him or her tell you.
6. Those with cancer suffer physically and spiritually. You mention God’s silence as a form of spiritual suffering. They pray and don’t seem to sense God. What can you do to help them?
God is sometimes silent but that doesn’t mean God is absent. In my upcoming book, When God Turns off the Lights, I tell what it was like for me when God stopped communicating for about 18 months.
I didn’t like it and I was angry. I didn’t doubt God’s existence, but I didn’t understand the silence. I read Psalms and Lamentations in various translations. I prayed and I did everything I could, but nothing changed.
After a couple of months, I realized that I needed to accept the situation and wait for God to turn on the lights again. Each day I quoted Psalm 13:1: “O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way?” (NLT)
I learned many invaluable lessons about myself–and I could have learned them only in the darkness. When God turns off the lights (and the sounds) I finally realized that instead of God being angry, it was God’s loving way to draw me closer.
7. Guilt troubles many friends and loved ones of caregivers because they feel they failed or didn’t do enough. What can you say to help them?
We probably fail our loved ones in some ways. No one is perfect. If you feel that kind of guilt, I suggest 3 things:
(1) Tell the loved one and ask forgiveness.
(2) Talk to God and ask God to forgive you and give you strength not to repeat your failures.
(3) Forgive yourself. And one way to do that is to say, “At the time, I thought I did the right thing. I was wrong and I forgive myself.”
8. Do you have some final words of wisdom for those giving care to a loved one with cancer?
Be available. You can’t take away the cancer but you can alleviate the sense of aloneness. Don’t ever try to explain the reason the person has cancer. We don’t know the reason and even if we did, would it really help the other person?
Be careful about what you say. Too often visitors and friends speak from their own discomfort and forget about the pain of the one with cancer. Don’t tell them about your cancer or other disease; don’t tell them horror stories about others. Above all, don’t give them false words of comfort. Be natural. Be yourself. Behave as loving as you can.
About the Cecil Murphey:
Cecil Murphey is an international speaker and bestselling author who has written more than 100 books, including the New York Times bestseller 90 Minutes in Heaven (with Don Piper). No stranger himself to loss and grieving, Cecil has served as a pastor and hospital chaplain for many years, and through his ministry and books he has brought hope and encouragement to countless people around the world. For more information, visit http://www.themanbehindthewords.com/.