Should You Share Your Faith with Your Medical Team?

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About six months before her diagnosis, 22-year-old Reagan Barnett realized there was a possibility she might have cancer. While her symptoms had been troublesome, Barnett’s age made it difficult for doctors to consider cancer as her diagnosis. But she began preparing herself emotionally and spiritually, which made the diagnosis of stage 2 colon cancer easier to receive.

“I feel like my faith prepared me for cancer,” Barnett says, which is why she wanted her medical team to understand the role spirituality would play in her recovery.

It was difficult for her to find appropriate support services at her initial hospital. So when it came to time to decide where to have surgery, Barnett made it a priority to look for a surgeon with a background in religion.

Although Barnett’s doctor prayed with her family before her total colectomy, she found it was easier, as the patient, to discuss her religious beliefs with an outside friend who was a pastor.

For many patients, faith plays an important part in how they cope with treatment and recovery, but whether it extends to the exam room depends on many factors.

Anees Chagpar, director of the Breast Center at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven in New Haven, Conn., says discussing spirituality starts with the patient and physician relationship.

“When a patient says, 'I want you to pray with me,' then I think as physicians, we’re able to do that regardless of our personal religious beliefs…We support our patients, being empathetic human beings,” Chagpar says.

In a recent study published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, researchers found a majority of patients facing the end of life considered attention to spiritual concerns by doctors and nurses to be “an important part of cancer care.” However, all patients, regardless of the severity of their illness, should feel safe discussing their faith with their medical team.

"Spirituality” can be defined as an aspect of humanity, not just organized religion.

“They should be aware that their spirituality is a part of who they are, and be comfortable enough to address that on the table so that complete holistic care is given,” says Deacon Thomas J. Devaney, director of Mission and Pastoral Care at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Christina Puchalski, director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health in Washington, D.C, says “spirituality” can be defined as an aspect of humanity, not just organized religion. It can include the way individuals seek meaning or purpose, and the way they experience their connection to self, to others and to nature, and to those significant or sacred.

[Read "Keeping the Faith"]

Patients should let the medical team know if they are struggling with spiritual or emotional distress. Those types of discussions can directly affect quality of life. It can also open up channels of communications between the patient and medical team to address those quality of life issues, including a referral to a hospital chaplain or other support services.

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