How faith communities serve those with cancer

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

I recently had the good fortune of attending a couple of church services in rural communities near Ithaca in order to speak about the work of the Cancer Resource Center.

It reminded me that churches, synagogues, mosques, and other faith communities are often the primary sources of support for people going through cancer.

And, as we know, cancer affects one’s entire family. One church I visited was the Reynoldsville United Methodist Church, just outside of Burdett. I was aware of the church because it was so important to Kristina Burke and her family as she went through several years of treatment for her cancer. The church was just as important when Kristina passed away from the disease just a few weeks ago. You could sense that the congregation was holding the family in its collective arms.

As I often write, what people with cancer want from others is a sense of being present. We don’t expect you to fix our cancers or even to explain our cancers. We simply want you to walk beside us, and to sit beside us, as we go through difficult times.

That’s what faith communities do. It’s putting into practice the motto of the Cancer Resource Center – “no one should face cancer alone.”

Faith itself is important when dealing with cancer or any other serious illness. I’m defining faith here very broadly – it’s a sense of trust and expecting that things will turn out as they should. You can have faith in traditional spiritual beliefs, in your doctors, in the power of nature, or whatever gives you comfort.

There’s so much about the cancer experience that we can’t control. If you have faith, you don’t have to fight so hard to stay in control and you begin to relax.

I hope that every pastor and every congregation recognizes how important they are to their parishioners affected by cancer.  By providing community and faith, you provide so much.


Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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