Prayer and other spiritual practices can be an important source of support and solace for patients and families during their cancer journey. Major illness is a physically taxing and emotionally draining experience for everyone involved—patients and family members—and faith-based rituals provide much-needed comfort and encouragement.
“We all have a spiritual dimension to our lives, whether we express it through religion or not,” says Rabbi Elisa Goldberg, a community clergy partner of the Pastoral Care Team at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “Human beings seek out meaning and transcendent experience through a sense of being part of something greater than themselves; tapping into those things that make life most meaningful can be an incredible resource in a moment when they don’t have control over the physical world.”
Honoring Spiritual Needs
Jacqueline Griffin, MATS, Chaplain at CTCA® in Goodyear, Arizona, says that helping patients access and perform religious or spiritual rituals or practices that offer peace is a critical aspect of support during cancer. “Rituals of faith can provide hope, strength, encouragement and a positive outlook and can help patients make sense and find meaning in the suffering they may experience,” Griffin says.
At CTCA in Philadelphia, patients of a variety of faiths—Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant and Evangelical—are supported through the Pastoral Care Department, explains Reverend Wendell Scanterbury, Director of Pastoral Care. Hospital staff is also educated about faith-related concerns to ensure that they can support patients’ needs.
Both the patient and the caregiver can request a visit from a member of the Pastoral Care Team. “Typically, the request comes from the patient, but I have also had family members, pastors and rabbis contact us to ensure that spiritual support is available,” says Rev. Scanterbury. “They are usually surprised to find out that we have already connected or are in the process of providing the support.”
Sometimes a hospital environment, while essential for treatment, may not be conducive to faith-based rituals and practices. In those instances the Pastoral Care Team reaches out to specific spiritual leaders to ensure that the patient’s needs are addressed from a religious perspective within the hospital setting.
For example, at CTCA in Philadelphia, an imam is available to support Muslim patients upon request, explains Rev. Scanterbury, “ensuring that gender-specific support is provided for patients and assisting bed-bound patients with challenges they may have regarding praying positions (direction of prayer) and with charitable acts that may be a part of religious duties.” In addition, he notes, CTCA works with members of the Jehovah’s Witness Hospital Liaison Committee to accompany outpatients and family members to meetings and to provide guidance on bloodless transfusions and power-of-attorney documents that align with their faith.
Peace in Ritual
Across belief systems, patients and families often speak of the peace and comfort they gain from the ability to practice rituals of their faith, says Griffin. “Emotionally, they have reported a sense of renewal of hope and faith, while some have reported a decrease in pain and other symptoms because the spiritual distress has been alleviated.”
Providing spiritual support to patients helps them reconnect with their spiritual or religious foundations, alleviating the feeling of distance and isolation and allowing for a greater sense of God’s closeness, adds Rev. Scanterbury. “I have often been told of a sense of peace and ‘lessened load’ that individuals report following counseling and prayer.”
For those of the Catholic faith, the Anointing of the Sick sacrament is “a great source of peace for the patient as well as those who participate in the prayer,” observes Sister Anne McCoy, SSJ, Chaplain at CTCA in Philadelphia. “For the most part, they gain a sense of closeness to God and experience a sense of peace.”
Family members can also benefit from spiritual support and religious ritual. “Often we spend more time with family members than we do with patients, depending on how serious their illness is,” says Rabbi Goldberg. “Especially toward the end of life, patients can be very sick or unconscious, and it’s the family members who really need the support. It can be very hard to watch someone you love and not be able to help them.”
In other instances the family member may have a specific faith-related request, says Rev. Scanterbury, such as one he received from a wife who was very concerned about her husband’s upcoming surgery. “She asked that I anoint the hands of the surgeon who was scheduled to perform the procedure, and he graciously agreed. This brought such relief to the caregiver that I believe the very act had a healing impact for her.”
Putting the Patient First
In an ideal situation, religious differences between family members will be overlooked for the good of patient, but that is not always the case. When conflict arises it is the patient’s wishes that should take precedence, emphasizes Griffin. “As chaplains we respect the religious and spiritual rights of all patients and will perform or accommodate for them accordingly. If the patient does not want any services, we must respect the rights of the patient. We will not impose any service on patients if they are able to make their own decisions and choose to reject religious services or rituals even if family requests it for the patient.”
In cases where the request comes from a family member, the Pastoral Care Team must first confirm that it is something the patient desires, notes Rev. Scanterbury. “It may be that the caregiver is projecting his or her own need onto the patient, in which case we make ourselves available to help the caregiver put things into perspective and possibly receive the support that we can offer. Similarly, if a patient or caregiver indicates a need for support, we ensure that they do receive the support that they are requesting.”
One of the roles of the chaplain is to cooperate with the family, as well as meet with the minister, priest or rabbi of the family’s faith, to formulate a way they can jointly meet everyone’s spiritual needs, explains Imam Amin Abdul-Aziz, a community clergy partner of the Pastoral Care Team at CTCA in Philadelphia. “We sit down and exchange ideas to ensure that family members are treated correctly, according to the precepts of their faith.”
Coming together on behalf of the patient and family puts all religious differences aside, he adds: “It’s a cooperative endeavor among the faiths at that point. We don’t debate. We come together for the sake of the person who is sick and trying to heal, as well as for the family.”
A chaplain’s job, says Rabbi Goldberg, is not to tell people what to believe but “to help people find their spiritual resources in the moment, to help people feel closer to God, however that looks or however they need to do that or whatever it takes.”
While each faith has its own practices, rituals and traditions for those navigating through the difficult and ever-changing sea of illness, they all share a common goal: to support the spiritual needs of patients and family members. Pastoral Care can serve as a lifeline, providing those in need with something to hold on to during their journey.