Q&A

On Cancer: Caring for Your Faith and Spirit following a Cancer Diagnosis

By Andrea Peirce, BA, Writer/Editor  |  Friday, February 7, 2014
Pictured: All Faith Chapel Memorial Sloan Kettering’s All Faith Chapel is available to patients and their families and friends to visit for quiet reflection.

On any given day, there are people in the All-Faith Chapel just off the main lobby at Memorial Hospital. Jews wearing the traditional tallith shawl worship beside Muslims on prayer rugs and Buddhists meditating in the lotus position. And some people are simply resting quietly, looking for a connection to something greater than themselves and their current situation in their own way.

Director of Chaplaincy Services Reverend Jill Bowden recently spoke to us about ways that cancer patients, and their friends and families, use this space and also turn to chaplains for religious and spiritual care both at Memorial Sloan Kettering and elsewhere.

What sorts of conversations do chaplains have with people?

In times of profound stress, such as when receiving a serious health diagnosis, it’s common for people to find that their usual coping skills are suddenly gone. “Now what?” people may ask themselves. “What should I do? How will I cope?” Or they may ask, “Who am I as a human being now that I know that I have cancer? Who am I if I can’t work, or hold my own baby?”

So the questions are bigger than just about being a cancer patient. In the face of pain and illness, it’s common to feel a sense of injustice, anxiety, anger, frustration, loss of control, isolation, or fear. All of these feelings are normal — and represent the point at which many people turn to their faith for spiritual sustenance.

For those without a particular belief system, it can become a time to find one. Others take refuge in the beauty of nature, or in the strength of their personal relationships or family.

Do chaplains give advice?

As chaplains we are here to listen, to support family members, pray if people wish, or simply provide a comforting presence. There are times we don’t say much at all; we are here to listen to people until they can hear themselves.

Chaplains strive to follow the patient’s lead in finding purpose and meaning, and to reflect back to them as they describe their own needs and hopes — and what their desired outcome might be. One person might want to have a blessing at the bedside; another might want to live long enough to see the birth of a grandchild.

To help people cope, a chaplain might also ask about what difficult experiences a person has had in the past, and what helped him or her through the challenging time. This enables many to find sources of strength they might not have initially recognized in themselves.

Are there common misconceptions about what chaplains do?

People often think they are calling on us primarily for religious services, but in fact, what we provide is a spiritual service.

Hospitals are filled with specialists of all kinds: physicians, surgeons, psychiatrists, nurses, social workers — all of whom bring special expertise. Chaplains are spiritual care specialists. And in most medical care settings, almost anyone can make a referral for a patient to a chaplain.

At Memorial Sloan Kettering, chaplains are board certified through professional organizations that provide special training in how to minister to people according to their own needs, values, and beliefs. Chaplains participate in patient and family care, staff support, education, and research, and are fully integrated into the fabric of the hospital.

About 50 years ago Memorial Sloan Kettering became one of the first hospitals in the New York City area to participate in the work of the HealthCare Chaplaincy Network. We were instrumental in helping to develop chaplaincy as a professional part of healthcare teams.

How do chaplains cope with their own stress?

To take care of others, chaplains need to be ministered to as well. So a lot of what I do as director of the service is support our staff and help to ensure that we don’t neglect ourselves.

One way we do this at Memorial Hospital is to come together for lunch every day. At the table are our chaplains as well as advanced pastoral education students who are here to learn the practice of cancer care. Sometimes local clergy who provide sacramental ministries to people of their own faith traditions join us as well.

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