The turmoil of cancer diagnosis and treatment can stir up sticky questions: What is the point of life? Why must humans become ill? Why me?
It’s no wonder that a recent study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that 88 percent of cancer patients nearing the end of life reported that religion was at least somewhat important to them. Yet more than 72 percent of the patients said that hospital chaplains and others in the health-care system weren’t helping them with their spiritual needs.
The results sound familiar to Betty Ferrell, Ph.D., R.N., research scientist in City of Hope’s Department of Nursing Research & Education, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study. She and her fellow investigators have seen spirituality’s importance firsthand.
“There is a seriously unmet need in the vast majority of patients,” said Ferrell, who believes the findings apply not only to patients at the end of life, but to all patients with cancer, regardless of their stage of disease.
Ferrell urges health-care professionals to evaluate patients’ spiritual needs, look at their own beliefs and how they may impact patients’ care, and advocate for the importance of chaplains at medical centers.
She suggests oncologists use a simple series of questions to understand spiritual beliefs’ importance to patients, and then act on them accordingly. Crediting work by researchers at George Washington University, she points to a standard series of general questions that help physicians begin to address patients’ faith.
An oncologist may begin by asking, “What gives your life meaning?”
Physicians might follow up by asking about beliefs with potential to influence health-care decisions, or whether patients are part of a religious support community.
The physicians’ own beliefs sometimes shape their recommendations to patients, too. “Oncologists may unintentionally impose their own religious beliefs or values on patients and disregard strongly held beliefs about the sanctity of life, the belief in miracles, hope and divine control over life-and-death decisions,” Ferrell said. By understanding how their own beliefs affect their attitudes, physicians may be better able to follow patients’ wishes.
Sometimes patients want more contact with spiritual caregivers while in treatment, so chaplains and spiritual caregivers within hospitals provide an especially valuable resource for patients who have spiritual needs but cannot travel to attend services. That’s a common challenge for seriously ill patients, so Ferrell argues that doctors and other caregivers push to preserve and even expand spiritual care at medical centers.
Researchers in City of Hope’s Department of Nursing Research & Education are widely recognized for their studies on quality of life in the care of people with cancer and other serious diseases. They advocate care that addresses not only patients’ physical needs, but their social, psychological and spiritual needs as well.
Health and harmony
The National Cancer Institute recognizes that spirituality plays a significant role in patients’ attitudes and feelings. The NCI reports that spiritual and religious wellbeing can improve quality of life in these ways:
Reduced anxiety, depression, and discomfort.
Reduced sense of isolation.
Better adjustment to the effects of cancer and its treatment.
Increased ability to enjoy life during cancer treatment.
A feeling of personal growth as a result of living with cancer.
Improved health outcomes.