Whatever you say, say a prayer

What better words of comfort are there during a crisis, asks Sarah Carey

October is international Breast Cancer Awareness month and on Saturday October 12, my show on Newstalk, Talking Point, interviewed experts about a recurring theme of discussion around all kinds of cancer. It’s this whole business of saying that people are ‘fighting’ cancer, or that sadly, someone has ‘lost their battle with cancer’. It’s a use of language you don’t hear if someone has a heart condition or osteoporosis.

A ‘battle’

For instance, we’d say that someone died from a heart attack. We wouldn’t say they ‘lost their battle with heart disease’, as if somehow, the patient didn’t fight hard enough. Speaking of a disease as a ‘battle’ puts a peculiar onus on the patient to participate in their own recovery. The weird thing is that for many diseases, like diabetes, or indeed, heart disease, there might be concrete things someone can do to improve the outcome; like manage their diet, give up cigarettes or take exercise. But if you’ve got cancer, the outcome is largely dependent on luck and science. You can be incredibly unlucky if you have a particularly aggressive form of cancer. And no matter what kind you have, a cure will be down to the success of the latest generation of drugs.

Think positive

Part of the assumption that the patient has to fight the disease is the cultural insistence they must think positive, as if this will make a difference to the outcome. Positive thinking can make you feel better, which is good – but there’s no evidence whatsoever that it will cure cancer. I’m not saying negative thinking is good for you either, but many patients have reported how much they resent being ordered to think positive, when they really feel angry and depressed. Barbara Ehrenreich, the American journalist who wrote a great book called Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America said that when she had breast cancer she began to think she had two diseases: cancer and a bad attitude. Patients end up feeling guilty that they aren’t thinking positively enough. They know that when a friend or relation says ‘think positive’ that the person is trying to be nice. But it just ends up making them feel worse, because on top of feeling bad, they are letting everyone down. They don’t have permission to own their feelings.

So what should you say if a friend or family member tells you they are sick? My experts said it’s okay to say “I don’t know what to say”. They also say that if someone tells you they’re dying, you shouldn’t brush that aside and say “Don’t be talking like that – you’ll be fine”, which is an instinctive reaction. But I want to say a word on behalf of prayer. 

Prayer, no more than positive thinking, is scientifically ineffective against disease. But in terms of a response to a crisis, offering a prayer seems like a good solution.

I’ve never faced any serious illness, but there have been times in my life when either I’ve been under terrible stress or unwell.  I recall particularly when I was out walking my new baby last year and stopped to chat to a neighbour. I’m a little person whose had big babies, and I must’ve been a desperate looking sight as I limped around during the last few weeks of that pregnancy, because my neighbour said: “When I saw you going up and down the road I always said a prayer for you.” I was really moved by her remark because it covered so many bases.

It acknowledged there was something wrong and often that’s what we most need people to do. I really had felt awful and it was a relief to know that she had noticed. Simply by acknowledging there was a problem, a burden was lifted.


Also, her offer of a prayer conveyed all the goodwill she clearly felt and that made me feel better too. It was kind, and the kindness made a difference.

And in reality, it probably made her feel better. Sometimes there are concrete things we can do for the sick, like offer lifts or make dinners. But often there is very little and feeling helpless can turn into feeling awkward and distant. If prayer offers the opportunity for loved ones to feel constructive and connect with the patient; well so much the better.

So when we were having our discussion about what to say when someone tells you they’ve cancer – apart from ‘think positive’ – I thought an offer of prayer was a good choice. Of course, there’s always the chance that the patient is either anti-religious or angry enough to think, ‘that’s not much good to me’.

But I think it’s reasonable to assume that most people, religious or not, would appreciate the spirit in which it was intended – generosity and kindness.