I’ve been finding myself digging around in stacks of archival materials, writings begun but left for another day and, to my surprise, work completed long ago. One of the unfinished pieces was based upon interviews with cancer patients about the role of religion and spirituality in their lives, especially as they faced an uncertain future.
This discovery reminded me that during my tenure as medical humanist at the cancer center in Bennington (2003-05), I was tasked with introducing a survey aimed at understanding how a patient’s religious or spiritual practice might serve as a resource during times of uncertainty. The doctors were also interested in understanding if a patient’s belief system could influence treatment decisions, which could be useful information in developing a personalized plan of care.
I recall that on one occasion, when I started to introduce the survey, a patient stopped me in mid-sentence and asked, “Are you telling me that if I prayed more, I wouldn’t have gotten cancer?” Stunned by his question I found myself apologizing for implying that faith might have played a role in him becoming ill. When I explained the purpose of the survey, he appeared to understand and answered the questions.
Reading my account of that uncomfortable incident triggered another memory– a discussion about spirituality with four advanced cancer patients that was documented in our 2005 video “Voices from the Lived World of Illness.”
When we asked this group of patients about the role of spirituality in facing illness, Pat confesses, “I can say that a significant portion of my life right now is dealing with spiritual issues that I consider very important…There’s a concept [in Judaism] called Heset, which is loving kindness, and I’m trying to be aware as I can of the kindness that comes to me and the kindness I give back.”
After listening to Pat, Adrienne says, “So what I’m struggling with is I just want to have some peace. I have a connection [to God] but it’s not always there when I need it. And, my fear is I’m going to die and not have the connection.”
Pete adds, “I really don’t ever remember feeling any spiritual connection my whole life. And, having been diagnosed with cancer I don’t think that has changed a bit.”
Then, we hear George say, “I don’t think spiritually it’s changed me a lot… And, I have faith that we’re here for a purpose and we may not know what it is. And I’ve always appreciated life and the beauty of life and respect people that get wrapped up in religion.”
Pat, Adrienne, Pete and George had no reservations talking openly about this subject. That was generally the case with those who took the survey. Yet, not long after the survey was launched, it was discontinued. There was no explanation. Perhaps, asking about spiritual/religious beliefs was viewed as too delicate a subject to discuss in a medical setting. From a medical humanist’s perspective, it seems worth the effort for patients and doctors to engage in these conversations, especially when the goal is caring for the person and not just a disease.
I’d like to ask readers, what do you think about patients facing serious illness discussing religious/spiritual beliefs with doctors?