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Cancer Health Center

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Spirituality in Cancer Care (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Overview


This summary will review the following topics:

  • How religion and spirituality can be usefully conceptualized within the medical setting.
  • The empirical evidence for the importance of religious and spiritual factors in adjustment to illness in general and to cancer in particular, throughout the course of illness and at the end of life, for both patients and family caregivers.[3]
  • The range of assessment approaches that may be useful in a clinical environment.
  • Various models for management and intervention.
  • Resources for clinical care.

Paying attention to the religious or spiritual beliefs of seriously ill patients has a long tradition within inpatient medical environments. Addressing such issues has been viewed as the domain of hospital chaplains or a patient's own religious leader. In this context, systematic assessment has usually been limited to identifying a patient's religious preference; responsibility for management of apparent spiritual distress has been focused on referring patients to the chaplain service.[13,14,15] Although health care providers may address such concerns themselves, they are generally very ambivalent about doing so,[16] and there has been relatively little systematic investigation addressing the physician's role. These issues, however, are being increasingly addressed in medical training.[17] Acknowledging the role of all health care professionals in spirituality, a multidisciplinary group from one cancer center developed a four-stage model that allows health care professionals to deliver spiritual care consistent with their knowledge, skills, and actions at one of four skill levels.[18]

Interest in and recognition of the function of religious and spiritual coping in adjustment to serious illness, including cancer, has been growing.[19,20,21,22,23] New ways to assess and address religious and spiritual concerns as part of overall quality of life are being developed and tested. Limited data support the possibility that spiritual coping is one of the most powerful means by which patients draw on their own resources to deal with a serious illness such as cancer; however, patients and their family-member caregivers may be reluctant to raise religious and spiritual concerns with their professional health care providers.[24,25,26] Increased spiritual well-being in a seriously ill population may be linked with lower anxiety about death,[27] but greater religious involvement may also be linked to an increased likelihood of desire for extreme measures at the end of life.[28] Given the importance of religion and spirituality to patients, integrating systematic assessment of such needs into medical care, including outpatient care, is crucial. The development of better assessment tools will make it easier to discern which aspects of religious and spiritual coping may be important in a particular patient's adjustment to illness.

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