A New Look at Spirituality
Integrating Spiritual Care
To meet cancer patients’ spiritual needs, chaplains are educating both current health care providers and medical school students about how to attend to this aspect of a person’s quality of life. “There may be 300 patients and three chaplains,” says Ferrell. “So, in the training we do with health care providers, we reinforce that if the only people who are getting good spiritual care are those seen by chaplains, most patients are going to have their needs ignored. … Chaplains are the spiritual experts, and it is important that they are available when patients have spiritual distress or a specific need for a religious leader. But everyone—nurses, social workers, doctors—can attend to spirituality.”
Getting medical professionals to feel comfortable in this role, however, is “fraught with challenges,” says Balboni. “One of the key issues as we move forward is designing evidence-based educational training in spirituality for doctors and other health professionals so that they feel more comfortable engaging with patients.”
Balboni and his colleagues’ research suggests that about 50 to 70 percent of doctors and nurses say they are spiritual or identify with some religion. But because spirituality is often not viewed as part of medical care, he says, health care providers may feel it’s inappropriate to bring it up with patients.
Randall says that because of the work she and her department have done to educate their colleagues at the Winship Cancer Institute about how to address patients’ spiritual needs, new doctors there are now more likely to bring up issues related to spirituality with patients and their families before the chaplain becomes involved. “We speak to doctors during their orientation at the hospital about their role and how they can support patients and family members,” she says. “We teach them that faith and spirituality can be a key component of caring for a patient and that we can help them provide that care.”
When Henley, now 47, was at one of her lowest points after completing her colorectal cancer treatment, she found spiritual strength by volunteering for the Chicago affiliate of the Colon Cancer Alliance, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit organization. “I was suffering on all accounts,” Henley says, “so I decided to start helping others. The more I volunteered and the more I did, the more I received.”
Today Henley’s life bears little resemblance to how it looked following her cancer diagnosis. Her new job is stable, her daughters are happy, and she not only has a home but two grandchildren. And, she says, she finally has peace. “I now see what God wanted me to see. … My message is one of hope and having faith.”
When Chaplain Piderman was diagnosed with an early stage breast cancer in October 2013, she had 18 years of “well-ingrained” spiritual practices to rely upon. Even so, she says she didn’t hesitate to seek out another chaplain to speak with. And like Henley, she found the spiritual in those around her. “One of my most spiritual practices was praying for other people who were sitting in the waiting room with me and for the people who were treating me. … Every day I drew the name of someone from our department and prayed for them during my treatment. It got my mind off myself, and I felt like I had some company in that treatment room.”
Piderman found support in her medical team as well. “My surgeon … prayed with me before she operated and she covered me with a warm blanket. She provided spiritual care through that kindness. … Spirituality is a human response.”
SUE ROCHMAN, a contributing editor for Cancer Today, is a medical journalist based in San Francisco.