Jul 232017 27 Responses

No, He Probably Won’t Beat Cancer

Last week, Senator John McCain made the announcement that he had Glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer. While some on social media took the moment to carelessly attack the Senator, most broke from the partisan divide and sent encouraging messages to and about this American war hero.

I deeply appreciate moments like these when we push aside differences and celebrate our shared humanity. It’s good to remember that while we disagree, we are on the same side. However, there was one aspect of all the positive tweets which I found disturbing. Many framed McCain’s diagnosis as a battle he would win. “Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against,” President Obama said. “Cancer picked on the wrong guy,” Vice President Pence wrote.

They are encouraging, well-intended words. But there’s only one problem. People generally don’t survive glioblastoma. Through the years, I’ve had several friends, church members, and even a family member have glioblastoma. The circumstances differed in each situation, but they all share one thing in common–I did the funeral for each person. Some cancers can be cured. Some can’t. Except for rare cases, glioblastoma currently falls in the latter category. Maybe one day it won’t, but it presently does.

John McCain isn’t going to beat this cancer. He might have a productive treatment. He may live longer than most. But unless something else takes him, he will likely die from the cancer he has been diagnosed with.

So why the denial?

Why do we struggle to admit what we all know to be true? Why do we feel better framing cancer as a fight to be won even when we know the patient’s outcome has little to do with their effort?

False Hope Is Not Hope

When my father-in-law was diagnosed with glioblastoma, he sought a few opinions. Everyone was in agreement. No treatment would be given. The disease was well-progressed, aggressive, and he had a greater desire to have a quality of life than a quantity of days.  The day he was to be released from the hospital, an oncologist was doing her rounds. She entered to room and painted a far brighter picture than any previous doctor. My wife and I were confused. We remained silent but followed the doctor out of the room to follow up. I told her what the other doctors had said and quizzed her as to why she gave a different outcome.

“I just can’t leave someone without hope,” she said. The doctor’s words were fascinating, “I just can’t.” As though her words and diagnosis were about her. She spoke to my father-in-law, not in a way best for him, but in a way that made her feel most comfortable. She gave a false sense of hope in order to make herself feel better.

Her actions are a common pattern for us when it comes to illness. Instead of doing what is best for the patient or family, we do what is best for us:

  • “He’ll beat this, I know it.”
  • “You have nothing to worry about, I’m sure of it.”
  • “God told me, she’ll be fine.”

These aren’t words of hope; they are words of denial. These aren’t actions of encouragement; they are statements of distraction. When a person uses these statements, they are often showing their inability to deal with pain, suffering, uncertainty, and doubt. They are avoiding uncomfortable conversations by pretending like everything is okay.

While that might be good for us, it’s not necessarily what’s best for the patient or their family. This isn’t to say they have to be hammered with the worst. “You’re going to die,” is only appropriate in specific situations and with the softest of approaches. We don’t have to say the worst, but we should refrain from lying to people just because the truth makes us uncomfortable.

John McCain is a fighter, but his diagnosis is not a new battle. His cancer isn’t a fight. It’s a diagnosis which he will have to learn to live with. It’s a disease which his doctors will treat and hopefully can keep at bay to give McCain as much quality of life as possible.

It’s possible to tell McCain that we love him, without lying to him. We can encourage him without giving false hope. We can offer our support while recognizing the reality of his disease.


27 Responses to No, He Probably Won’t Beat Cancer
  1. amy harris Reply

    Totally disagree!!!!!!!!

  2. KC Shay Reply

    Amen, very well said.

  3. Martha Adams Reply

    I no its denial but I had to have a little bit of hope.

  4. Rita Austin Reply

    When my son Heath was diagnosed with epithelioid sarcoma, we went to uams. Dr. Nicholas told him, Son, you have About a year and a half to live, go live. My 32 year old son decided to try some treatment, but didn’t continue. He appreciated that he was never given that “hope, miracle, you can beat this” speech. Cancer of his kind, ends life, period. He made his arrangements, wrote his obituary and tried to right wrongs. He prayed, everyday. We always talked our talks with truth and love. Cancer have me my drug addict son back. We were able to live, love and make him comfortable together. Cancer with no cure rate is hard, but living in denial of its final end is also hard. Cancer brought my son to reality and his final breath was that of total peace. I knew he was home.

  5. H Reply

    So much for believing in miracles. What’s the point in praying to the “Great Healer” if we live with no hope?

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      I never said we had no hope, but God never guarantees He will heal. Miracles, by definition, are rare hence the word “probably” in the title.

  6. karen Reply

    I really like your articles, but not this one. When you have faith you can move mountains. Nothing is impossible and we see miracles everyday if we are watching. As long as a person who is diagnosed with cancer is breathing we can pray for a miracle! That is not denial that is faith that God knows best.
    Watch the movie (based on a real family experience) “Miracles from Heaven”
    People do not know…God knows! Science fails…God does not

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Thank you for your comment. I never said we couldn’t pray for a miracle. I never said a miracle couldn’t happen. But miracles, by definition, are rare so I said “probably.”

  7. Holli Willis Reply

    Well said, excellent advice for a tough subject.

  8. Angela Reply

    As the wife of a palliative patient, I am very grateful for this refreshingly honest assessment. It’s freeing to have honesty because the honesty lets the patient and caregivers grieve together and that deepens the relationship. Thank you for this post.

  9. Marilyn Reply

    As a former oncology nurse and healing minister, I realized that what was so often missing in the hospital setting and in the Church was the truth about death. Hence, I became a bereavement counselor. I believe that in order to truly “heal” we have to deal with the undeniable truth that we are all going to die. “Dying well” has become a part of my approach to healing with those that I minister to. I find your insights honest and real, however, not complete. To make oneself “feel better” in words and prayers in the hopes for a miracle is our denial, but what I would have liked to have had you include in your piece is the pure faith which is necessary to believe in healing and miracles in the first place. Believing and receiving come from the truth of the Word and the reality of serving a sovereign God who determines when we will die. We must examine our motives and our hearts and speak and pray accordingly and not pretend that we know what His plan will ultimately be.

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Marilyn, Thank you for your comments. Dying well is an important concept. I don’t believe “pure faith” is necessary for healing or miracles. God can sovereignly do as He wishes. We must trust Him however He leads.

    • C. Thars Reply

      You mirrored my sentiments almost exactly with regards to dying well and accepting that death is a guarantee for us all. I too also worked many years on an oncology unit, and the experiences I gained there helped me approach “death and end-life decisions” with family members candidly, and open up the conversation long before they’re health was in decline. It was a real benefit and it made all the difference in the world when they finally moved from this world to glory.

      As with faith, in regards to pure faith or miracles, I’ve always kind of held on to the model the three in Daniel 3:16, 17 expressed, a kind of, “Yes! God can deliver, but if He does not, I will still serve him”, I’ve just learned that sometimes, the answer is no, and He ultimately knew our beginning and end before we were born.

      Thank you for your thoughts.

  10. Lorie Spencer Reply

    My ex-husband passed on June 17, 2017 of Glioblastoma. He passed 3 months after diagnosis. They tried radiation and chemo pills, nothing worked. In fact I think the treatments made it worse. He had many seizures before passing. He was bedridden the last 6 weeks of his life. So heartbreaking.

  11. Kay Reply

    I 100% agree that false hope is no hope at all. Last fall I began what I knew in my heart to be a miscarriage, but a nurse called me to tell me that my hormone levels looked great. I hung up the phone and turned to my husband and burst into tears, saying “This false hope is even WORSE than no hope at all. I know it’s over.” I was indeed miscarrying. (And a quick google search told me the numbers proved the pregnancy was not viable, so the nurse had no idea what she was talking about.) It would have been infinitely more helpful to receive THE TRUTH in that moment rather than a false hope. Because then we could embrace hat truth and move forward. That nurse’s mistake was honestly the lowest point of the whole miscarriage experience even though she thought she was bringing me hope.

    Even some of the comment above I find discouraging. The fact is that we ALL die. So at some point, God is not going to heal us, not physically anyway. It is not a lack of faith to accept our mortality. Sometimes God’s healing IS in death.

    • C. Thars Reply

      Yes. This right here. “It’s not lack of faith to accept our mortality.”

  12. Max Reply

    My wife’s sister has been diagnosed with this type of cancer. We are believers but she and her family is not. We pray for her salvation and for the rest of the family and leave her physical need in the sovereignty of God

  13. Marilyn Reply

    Thank you Kevin and C.Thars for your comments. To add to what I said above, as a Healing Minister in my church, in addition to my nursing and bereavement experiences, it was necessary for me to have the “pure faith” to believe in the Word that I was speaking and praying over others. That was my test of faith in Him and trust in a sovereign God. As we prayed and believed for healing and miracles, sometimes the answer was death. It happened this way with my Dad, he was mercifully taken before a daunting existence overcame him and us. God’s sovereignty often takes our breath away as we pray, believe and trust in Him to do His bidding. No, Dad didn’t beat his illnesses, but was spared much, and yes, I prayed with a pure faith in Jesus and still do—“Thy will be done!”

  14. Michele Holland Reply

    As a hospice nurse, I couldn’t agree with you more! A lot of patients endure unpleasant treatments just to appease family members. Family members need to have hard conversations about what the patient wants and what is important to them. We are born with a selfish sin nature and when it comes to a family member facing terminal illness, we need to take ourself out of it, die to ourself and let the one that is facing the diagnosis the option how to live until they die.

  15. Karen Ewing Reply

    I disagree. My Mom had terminal cancer. She had a Dr. that gave her false hope every time she went to a appointment. She would get up everyday and go eat with her friends, write her weekly column that was in the SWTR and was very upbeat about her illness. One day her Dr. was gone and she seen his associate. He told her that her Dr. filled her with false hope and she would die and soon. We left his office suppose to be meeting friends for lunch but instead she went home and went to bed and gave up on life. Maybe her Dr. did give her false hope but it also gave her courage to get out of bed and live life.

  16. Jim Shultz Reply

    Well said Kevin, I think everyone is entitled to their opinion.I know several people with different types of Cancer,some will beat it, some will not. I am a very firm beleaver in having a positive attitude and the power of prayer.

  17. Karen Reply

    As a 23 year survivor of cancer, I want to commend you on a very insightful article. Your advice is correct. It takes tremendous energy to rise to everybody’s hopes and expectations, when your total effort should be aimed at getting well. Validation is one of the most important things you can do for a patient. Acknowledge the cancer, but always offer prayers. Hope and the certain knowledge that God had me in His Hands, gave me great peace and strength.

  18. Randy Reply

    Unfortunately, the Gospels don’t give us examples of Jesus telling someone he won’t heal them because their death is part of a greater plan. Until we get to Gethsemane.

    Hope for the Christian is often described as,” the confident expectation of good.” and we often replace “good” with whatever it is we want rather than what God wants. My hope is healing in so far as God is glorified in it. But death is not a failure on Gods part but an outcome that reminds us of His sovereignty in the near term and ultimately reveals His glory eternally.

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