Mar 23

Encouraging a Depressed Loved One

 

The word “encourage” means to inspire or fill someone with courage, spirit or hope. But how in the world do you encourage someone who is depressed?

To answer that difficult question, I’d like to share some thoughts from the book New Light on Depression by David Biebel, D.Min. and Harold Koenig, M.D.

“Family members, loved ones, and friends should encourage depressed persons—to get up in the morning, to go out to dinner, to go to a movie, to exercise with them, to do the things their depression is preventing them from enjoying, and to seek professional help if they are not doing so already. Once depressed people get out and start moving they often feel a lot better. Encouraging, however is not the same as forcing, manipulating, or cajoling, nor will arguing about it help much…Here, again, discernment is crucial so that your suggestions are made in the right way at the right time, to ensure the greatest likelihood that they will be accepted.

“One way to encourage a depressed friend to get out (and to get help) is to find a good depression support group and invite your loved one to attend it with you.” [1]

Biebel and Koenig identify “four helping patterns” they have seen Christians employ with their depressed family and friends. These are:

  1. Judging (“Your problem is caused by sin or lack of faith”)
  2. Giving advice (“Cheer up—things could be worse!”),i
  3. Identification (sympathizing so much that you get sucked into the pit of depression, too) and
  4. Empathy (suffering together with the person).

According to the authors “Only empathy really helps.” [2] Empathizers deeply feel the other person’s pain, without making it their own.

“The empathizer goes and gets a ladder, puts it in the pit, and climbs down to be with the depressed person until he or she is ready to climb out,” the authors say. “The key difference is that the empathizer has a goal in mind—not just to feel the depressed person’s pain, but to also act in a sense as a redeemer, willing to pay whatever cost there is in order for the other person to be healed…

“If you are really going to help your loved one through and beyond depression, the only way is to lay aside your rights, by choice, with the goal of serving that person’s best interests until he or she emerges into the light of day again.” [3]

Got a ladder? Put it down in your depressed loved one’s pit, climb down with them and pray for them until they climb out.

 

[1] David B. Biebel and Harold G. Koenig New Light on Depression: Help, Hope, and Answers for the Depressed and Those Who Love Them (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House), 2004, 233.

[2] Ibid, 246.

[3] Ibid, 248-249.

Mar 16

That’s Not Fair!

 

Remember when you were a kid and indignantly informed your parents: “That’s not fair!”

They probably responded with some important information for you: “Life’s not fair.” Their response only made you madder!

Nobody who’s being treated unfairly wants to hear it. It’s a logical response to a heartfelt emotion. But the longer we live, the more we realize how true that statement is. Perhaps life has been unfair to you or your loved one recently or perhaps for a very long time. Either way, life has disappointed you. Maybe if you’re really honest you’ll admit you even feel disappointed by God.

I have another truth I’d like to share: Don’t confuse life with God.

In Philip Yancey’s book Disappointment with God, he writes about a man named Douglas whom he interviewed because he thought Douglas might feel a great disappointment with God. Life, as Yancey describes it, had been very unfair to Douglas. While his wife was battling advanced breast cancer, Douglas was in a car accident with a drunk driver and suffered a terrible head injury that left him permanently disabled, often in pain and unable to work full-time.

But when Yancey asked this victim of unfairness to describe his disappointment with God, Douglas said he didn’t feel any and instead told Yancey the following:

“I have learned to see beyond the physical reality in this world to the spiritual reality. We tend to think, ‘Life should be fair because God is fair,’ But God is not life. And if I confuse God with the physical reality of life—by expecting constant good health, for example—then I set myself up for crashing disappointment.

“If we develop a relationship with God apart from our life circumstances, “ said Douglas, “then we may be able to hang in there when the physical reality breaks down. We can learn to trust God in spite of the unfairness of life.”

Cancer is very unfair. Even if you “did” something to “get” it or didn’t do something not to get it, it’s still unfair. Maybe you are a smoker diagnosed with some smoking-related cancer. It’s still unfair because many smokers never get develop a disease from their habit (only about 20-percent get lung cancer). Maybe you quit smoking 10 or 20 years ago and you still have been afflicted. Hardly fair.

Perhaps you didn’t get regular mammograms, PAP smears or PSAs and now you have cancer. Guess what, it’s still not fair, because lots of people don’t get those screening tests and they don’t get cancer. Besides some people get them faithfully and the cancer isn’t even detected! That seems even more unfair.

Maybe you are overweight or out-of-shape or didn’t get regular physicals. Your diagnosis still is not very fair because you know many others in your same circumstances with great health. Or perhaps you received the ultimate insult in being diagnosed with cancer in spite of taking the best care possible of yourself and doing everything right not to get sick.

Go ahead and say it.

It’s not fair that I have this.

It’s not fair that my loved one has this.

It’s not fair that this has happened to us right now.

Say it, but don’t be confused that life should be fair because God is.

Life is not fair, but God is not life.

Yancey says that “Every time a believer struggles with sorrow or loneliness or ill health or pain and chooses to trust and serve God anyhow, a bell rings out across heaven and the angels give a great shout. Why? Because one more pilgrim has shown again that he or she understands that Jesus is worth it all. God is faithful.”

There’s a law firm that advertises on the radio by spotlighting people who have had awful, unfair things happen to them and then hired a lawyer to try and rectify the situation. The commercial concludes, that you, too, should call this law firm “when life hands you moments you just don’t deserve.”

I  think I  have some even better advice: When life hands you moments you just don’t deserve, put your trust in the Lord, because even when life is unfair, God is faithful.

Mar 09

David vs. Goliath

 

If you or your loved one is up again a particularly scary diagnosis, I encourage you to think of the shepherd boy David as he went into battle armed only with a slingshot and five pebbles to fight against the giant Goliath. Do you know what his battle cry was? He wasn’t like The Little Engine that Could, chugging along and repeating “I think I can, I think I can.”

No, his thinking was more like “I know I can’t. I know I can’t.” David was the youngest and smallest boy in his family—too small to wear a protective suit of armor—and Goliath was more than nine feet tall. But David’s battle cry was: “I know God can. I know God can.” If you read 1 Samuel 17:47, you’ll see his exact words: “The battle is the Lord’s.”

That phrase appears many times throughout the Old Testament as mighty warriors went up against even mightier appointments. It’s a phrase you may want to pray as you awake each morning.

Lord, I feel like a little shepherd boy with a slingshot facing a giant named Cancer, and it is more than I can handle. But I choose to believe it is not more than You can handle. The battle belongs to You, Lord. Fight for me and through me. Do what I cannot do on my own.

I believe that sometimes we do get more than we can handle in our own strength, but I also believe in the promise of Philippians 4:13, which says: “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me the strength.”

You don’t have to reach down inside yourself and muster up some super strength. Even if you feel you can’t always “live strong,” you can live by His strength.

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah described that strength: “He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall into exhaustion. But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.”

Live strong BY HIS STRENGTH.

Mar 02

Do I Have to Go to Oz to Get Some Courage?

If someone had said to me in May 1990: “Next month you are going to be diagnosed with metastatic cancer, have major surgery, and then need a year of chemotherapy,” I would have responded: “No way! I cannot possibly go through that!”

I am by nature a wimp.

I bruise and scar easily. Loud noises hurt my ears. I get motion sickness just turning around in the front seat of a car.

And I definitely do not like pain.

When I made the appointment for my first post-cancer colonoscopy (definitely not scheduled to air on national TV like Katie Couric’s!), I told the secretary I wanted plenty of anesthesia because I had been uncomfortably awake during most of the procedure the first time with a different physician.

“Be sure and tell the doctor,” I instructed her. But her casual “uh-huh” left me feeling that she didn’t think it was a real priority.

“Write on my chart ‘Wimp—needs lots of anesthesia,’” I instructed her again. She laughed and I still wondered whether she knew how serious I was.

My question was answered a few weeks later when I met my new gastroenterologist, Dr. Jim Srour, just moments before he started the procedure. The I.V. already was running into my hand as he read my medical chart. “I see it says here that you are a wimp and need lots of anesthesia,” he said without cracking a smile.

“Yes, that’s me!” I exclaimed.

He instructed the nurse to put more anesthesia in my I.V., and that is how and why Jim Srour became my favorite gastroenterologist!

Like the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, I often feel I could use a dose of courage, but it’s not usually as easy as getting a little more medicine in an I.V. tube. But I do believe it is possible, even if we’re not naturally brave, to supernaturally receive courage for ourselves and even enough to share with others.

It’s important to understand that receiving supernatural courage is not the same as being a naturally brave person. It’s not something magical that happens to some people and not to others. No, you don’t have to go to Oz to find it.

The kind of courage I’m talking about is what God supernaturally pours into our hearts—even into ordinary, wimpy hearts like mine—through the power of His Spirit as we draw close to Him. And when He does, others notice—especially if we’re in a difficult situation.

“People tell me that I have a shine about me that they just don’t usually see in people,” says my friend Jutta, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003 and given two years to survive, but still cancer-free today. “I tell them that’s just a gift from God.”

We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.

2 Corinthians 4:7 NLT

Yes, it takes courage to live in cancer’s shadow, but it’s not something we just have to reach way down deep into ourselves and find. No, instead, it’s power we receive from God to be strong even when we are weak.

I believe that courage is not living without fear—it’s living in spite of fear.

I love psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s thoughts on courage: “The absence of fear is not courage; the absence of fear is some kind of brain damage. Courage is the capacity to go ahead in spite of the fear, or in spite of the pain.”*

God will give you enough courage to live with an uncertain future. And as you encourage others with your story, you won’t have less courage; you will feel even more encouraged.

I have seen this happen time and again in my job as a patient advocate. People often say to me: “I could never do a job like that.”

My reply is: “I can’t either, but God can through me. I allow Him to pour courage into me so I have it to pour into others.”

So take a new grip with your tired hands and stand firm on your shaky legs. Mark out a straight path for your feet. Then those who follow you, though they are weak and lame, will not stumble and fall, but become strong.–Hebrews 12:12-13 NLT

I know it is difficult to persevere in cancer’s shadow, but I am convinced that it’s not the amount of our faith that gives us courage, it’s the object of our faith that makes all the difference.

Whenever I place my faith in God, I find courage. I don’t need luck, natural bravery, or a trip to the Wizard of Oz! You don’t need a lot of faith to find courage, but you do need to place your faith in the only One who can meet your deepest needs.

These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage: I have overcome the world.–Jesus speaking in John 16:33 NASB

Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you.– Deuteronomy 31:8 NLT

 

* M.Scott Peck, Further Along the Road Less Traveled (New York: Touchstone, 1993), 23.

Feb 17

Telling Children about Cancer in the Family

I know what a great deal of courage it takes to talk to children about cancer in the family.

When I was diagnosed, our daughters were 8, 10 and 12, and we wanted to protect them from cancer’s assault on me. So, we decided we would tell them I was going to have surgery, but we wouldn’t use the word cancer.

That bright idea lasted about 24 hours until I realized that somebody in our church or our community was going to use the word cancer and my girls would hear it.

So we sat them down again and using the dreaded word tried to give them an idea of what to expect. I remember being careful not to give them too much information that would scare them but also not making promises we couldn’t keep.

We were cautious not to talk about any specific cure odds, but about five years later my eldest daughter, Danielle, confessed she had overhead someone talking at church and knew that the odds I would die were greater than the odds I would live.

I wish I had known Danielle knew that because I would have talked more with her about my uncertain future and encouraged her more to ask questions and express worries. But she is my introvert and didn’t mention the overhead conversation until she was seventeen.

 

If you still have children at home—or even grandchildren nearby—you have a great opportunity to show them your faith in action. It’s easy to talk about things like praying, having faith and trusting God, but a diagnosis of cancer in the family gives us a chance to see if our walk matches our talk.

In those first really dark days after my diagnosis, I remember feeling as if I wanted to go to bed, pull the covers up over my head, and have somebody call me to come out when it was all over. But I also remember my head talking some courage into my faint heart.

You’ve always told your children:

That God can be trusted.

Now they can see if you really do trust Him.

That God is faithful.

Now they can see if you will be too.

That knowing Jesus makes all the difference.

Now they can see if it really does.

We were a family, and that “for better or for worse” pledge my husband and I made applied to our children too. Together we would face cancer with the courage that God supernaturally would pour into each of our hearts, no matter what our age or bravery status.

Cancer probably was the best real-life lesson to prove to my kids that God can and will meet our deepest needs—that He can give us courage to face things we never thought we could.

My daughters, now in their thirties, also have seen that because God poured courage into our hearts, we now can pour it into others.

He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When others are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. . . . For when God comforts us, it is so we, in turn, can be an encouragement to you. 

2 Corinthians 1:4, 6 NLT

 

One of the ways I’ve noticed that God pours courage into people’s hearts is “putting the right people in your life at the right time.”

The apostle Paul talks about this method of God’s encouragement in a letter he wrote to the believers in Corinth, Greece.

When we arrived in Macedonia, there was no rest for us. We faced conflict from every direction, with battles on the outside and fear on the inside. But God, who encourages those who are discouraged, encouraged us by the arrival of Titus. His presence was a joy. . . .

2 Corinthians 7:5-7 NLT

Many times I have seen God, who encourages the discouraged, “show up” in just the right person and at just the right time to encourage me. I hope you pray believing He will do the same for you and those you love.

 

Feb 10

The Mind-Body Healing Connection

Isn’t it amazing the impact our thoughts can have on our bodies?

I got chemo every Wednesday and that evening we would take our girls to Shoney’s Restaurant for supper because kids 12 and under (of which we had three!) were free. I was always pretty nauseous, so while my family enjoyed the buffet, I sipped a cup of cream of broccoli soup and ate saltines.

A couple weeks after I finished treatment, we decided to go to Shoney’s again and I was anticipating being able to enjoy the array of food, but guess what? I felt so nauseous I thought I was going to be sick just standing at the buffet! (And it took me years to be able to eat cream of broccoli soup again!)

Our oncology office had a teenage boy who used to come in for treatment and each time–before he even got a drop of chemo–he would puke. No amount of anti-nausea medicine ahead of time ever prevented it. And I also know a cancer survivor who got nauseous when she saw her oncologist at the mall! (Glad that wasn’t true for me since my oncologist and his wife became our best friends!)

Obviously, the connection between mind and body is real. But our mind’s influence on our body can be positive as well as negative. And while I don’t believe our thoughts can guarantee a better outcome for our health, I do believe they can influence it. Psychologist and author Dr. William Backus says people dealing with illness need to remember three facts:

Your beliefs create your thoughts.

Your thoughts generate feelings.

Your feelings affect your body’s healing systems.

“Psychoneuroimmunology” is the fancy label attached to the subject of mind-body healing, which is being studied increasingly by therapists and researchers, who even have discovered a hard-wire connection between the body’s immune system and the brain’s central nervous system.

So, if your brain has the ability to send messages to your immune system cells, “what you believe and tell yourself can become a powerful medication in your personal pharmacy,” according to Dr. Backus.

He advocates not just positive-thinking, but telling ourselves the truth about our situation. He has gathered many examples of truthful healing beliefs embraced by those who have survived life-threatening illnesses. Here are a few—I hope you, too, can add them to your mind’s pharmacy:

  • “I refuse to believe my diagnosis is an automatic death sentence.
  • I believe treatment is effective against this illness, especially the skillful efforts of scientific medicine combined with my strategies for replacing lying thoughts with the truth.
  • I believe my hormones and immune system were created to be on the side of my healing and can work to overcome this illness.
  • I believe God is on the side of my healing because His unbreakable Word says so.
  • I believe I am personally responsible for my treatment and for managing it.
  • I believe hope is a choice. I choose hope, not hopelessness.
  • I believe I’m on earth to share hope, and joy with others. I’m here to love others, regardless of my physical condition.
  • I believe that God’s will is good. I believe that He loves me and wants only the best for me—no matter what He is allowing me to experience right now.
  • I can recover from this illness and live a rich, productive life. But whether I recover or not, I am going to leave this life someday regardless. Until then I can live a full life of service every day for as long as I am given.”*

 

*William Backus, The Healing Power of the Christian Mind (Minneapolis: Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 1996) 96.

 

Feb 03

Top 10 Signs You’re Paranoid about Cancer

10. You have your oncologist’s number on speed dial.
9. Your oncologist’s secretary has put a call block on your phone number.
8. Ten years after your cancer treatment, your Mediport is still in place “just in case.”
7. You take a portable radon detector with you on vacation.
6. You include those little hemoccult test kits for hidden stool blood in your Christmas cards.
5. You take weekly photos of your moles.
4. You offer to take weekly photos of your friends’ moles.
3. You read the obituaries daily to see which ones suggest, “Donations may be made to the American Cancer Society.”
2. You wear SPF-30 sunscreen . . . indoors when you are sitting by a window.
1. You have a framed copy of the “Seven Warning Signs of Cancer” hanging next to the Ten Commandments on your living-room wall.

I read these reasons to my husband and he didn’t even laugh. But whenever I read them to a roomful of cancer survivors, people always laugh or nod their heads in agreement. Not only are we part of a select group called cancer survivors; we now have an unwanted membership in Club Paranoia.
I would love to quit this club completely, but even 25 years after my diagnosis of advanced colon cancer at age 36, I must admit that I am still much more paranoid about cancer than I ever was before I was first diagnosed. So if you want the really quick, simple answer to the question “Is everyone as paranoid as I am?” the answer is YES!
One reason cancer survivors are so paranoid is because once our bodies have betrayed us, it’s hard to trust them again. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I looked fine and felt fine. I certainly couldn’t imagine I had a life-threatening illness. I thought that people with cancer would look sick or at least feel sick.
My theory in life used to be: if you’re not bleeding profusely or in terrible pain, you’re okay. My parents, especially my father, who coached sports, always told me to “shake it off” if I got hurt as I was growing up. And that’s what I continued to do as an adult.
So I have a little occasional blood in the stool. Probably an old hemorrhoid. I feel fine. Shake it off, I told myself.
So my bowels are occasionally a little different. Probably something I ate. I look fine. Shake it off.
And that’s what I did . . . for a year and a half. Both my doctor (make that ex-doctor) and I ignored symptoms that I now know suggest cancer.

Perhaps you did the same. You ignored a warning sign or your doctor didn’t seem too concerned about it, so you didn’t bother with any tests. And now that you’ve received a cancer diagnosis, you want to make sure you never make that mistake again.
Welcome to Club Paranoia.
This is the place where you feel nervous ignoring things that you never would have worried about before.

Where a dull headache might be a brain tumor.
Where a tiny, old age spot could be melanoma.
Where indigestion is possibly stomach cancer.
Where a backache surely is bone metastases.
Where lumps, bumps, aches, and pains seem much more pronounced right
before your next checkup and much less right afterwards!

Unless you were a terrible hypochondriac before the cancer diagnosis, you’re probably going to be a little more paranoid about the disease now. I have yet to meet a survivor who doesn’t admit to at least some degree of irrational fear.
I think cancer survivors and their loved ones should be suspicious of and distrustful of the Big C. It is a very sneaky disease, and we are wise to remain vigilant and not let our guard down when it comes to our health. That makes us smart, not paranoid.
It’s the irrational fears we need to avoid. And we do that by being rational—by telling ourselves the truth about our fears.

Most headaches are not brain tumors.
Most breast lumps are not malignant.
Most backaches are not cancer in our bones.
Most of the people diagnosed with cancer today can expect to be alive five years from now.*
Most cancer survivors are at least a little paranoid, and you’re not crazy if you are too!
I would be a charlatan if I told you I could promise you that cancer won’t strike you or your loved one again. While I do believe there are things we can do physically, mentally, and spiritually to keep healthy, it is not always possible to prevent cancer from coming back or a new one from forming.

But I would not be completely honest if I neglected to tell you there is an unseen Someone whose presence we can’t escape and who does want to get ahold of us and never let us go.

This Someone knows every paranoid thought before it even crosses our lips and not only sees our future but also holds it in His hands.

You know when I sit down or stand up.
You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
You see me when I travel and when I rest at home.–Psalm 139:2-7

Webster’s defines being paranoid as living a life characterized by “irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness.” The above verses are my prescription for that kind of paranoia. When I read them I am reminded that:

Cancer is not everywhere, but God is.

I can get away from cancer, but I can’t hide from God.

Tomorrow shouldn’t be feared because God is already there.

There is no darkness when I’m in God’s presence.

You may not be able to completely cancel your membership in Club Paranoia, but you don’t have to be a card-carrying member every day!

 
* Actually 68% of adult cancer patients still are alive five years after diagnosis, according to the National Cancer Institute. Statistics for childhood cancers are even more encouraging.

 

Jan 27

The Mind, Heart & Soul of a Survivor

Dear friend,

I wish you well on your — or your loved one’s– journey with cancer.
I wish you a heart that has found the right attitude — a positive, realistic attitude.
I wish you a mind that has found peace — by replacing worries with better thoughts and by focusing on the present and not on the “what-ifs” of the future.
And I wish you a soul that has found hope — a hope based on the God of all Creation, who gives life true meaning.