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How to Pray About Cancer (Without Upsetting Everybody)

What if prayers do not cure cancer every single time? No cancer patient or survivor should feel like a moral failure. Here are some suggestions from my experience to avoid hurting others with good intentions.
PUBLISHED April 13, 2018
Felicia Mitchell is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwestern Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. She was diagnosed with Stage 2b HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010. Website:
There are as many paths to prayer as there are ways to believe in God. Those who do not believe in God also find ways to pray or focus hopeful thoughts. People with cancer can appreciate these prayers, even if they are not so sure of what happens after life ends. A prayer can be a heartfelt way of showing support. Sometimes, some suggest, it can move mountains or cure cancer.

At the same time a prayer can feel warm and fuzzy, it can also hurt. Well-intentioned loved ones can send daggers to the heart with some emotional appeals. What if prayers do not cure cancer every single time? As soft-spoken as I am with people's diverse beliefs, I speak up when people offer prayers that seem contrary to good karma for cancer survivorship. Here are some suggestions from my experience if you are ever in doubt about how to pray.

Prayer Is Not a To-Do List
On the top of my list of upsetting prayers is a prayer request for a good lab report. Think about it. The lab report is going to be either good or bad. There is thus a 50-50 chance that you will feel the power of prayer if you get the result you want. Does a good report mean that God loves you more? Imagine a loved one getting bad news. Do you want her or him to think that God does not answer prayers? This is what I suggest instead. Pray for the strength for your loved one to get through the check-up, whatever may come.

Respect Medical Science While Hoping for a Miracle
Miracles have happened, or so I have heard. They could happen again. While the medical establishment often explains miracles in scientific terms, it is perfectly acceptable to look at a miracle in cosmic terms. Miracles, however, do not always happen. Sometimes a health crisis is what it is – a health crisis. Praying will not unravel DNA or medical fate. To have an answered prayer for me not to have cancer, for example, fate would have to rewind to when I was in utero or even to when I was not yet conceived. It would have to erase generations of people carrying the genes I carry. Cancer comes because of genes and oncogenes and complicated environmental variables, not because God is not listening to prayers. Do not set a survivor up to feel like a failure. Hope itself is healing.

When Somebody Is Dying, Go Easy
When somebody is on his or her deathbed, praying for a miracle in a public way is like setting up the patient for a moral failure if God does not intervene instantly. It makes the family feel worse. When it is time to go, the body begins to shut down. If somebody rallies, as sometimes happens in what my mother called "getting well to die," give some credit to the soul that is not ready to go. Just imagine all that is going on when time is near. Let the body unravel in its own way. If you believe in God, believe that God loves the dying person as much as the healthy person. Pray for acceptance of the next chapter. Pray for a peace that surpasses understanding. Help the family through acceptance of mortality. Nobody lives forever. Nobody wants to live forever, even if living a little longer than a cancer prognosis gives us can feel like a blessing.

Cancer Is not a Punishment from God
Who does not want to feel blessed? If you are healthy, and your loved ones are, and nobody you know ever gets sick, it is OK to feel blessed. Call it what you like. If somebody does not ever get cancer, however, that does not truly mean that this person is more blessed than the next person with two different types of cancer and no health insurance. We are all blessed or at least grateful to get a go at life. The person with cancer should never be made to feel that things might have been different had she or he gone to Sunday school for 12 years straight with perfect attendance. Cancer does not discriminate. We do the best we can with this life we are given. We do the best we can with cancer if it comes, spirit willing.

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