Saturday, October 2, 2010


I recently wrote a paper about chemotherapy and what it can teach us about caregiving. I cut and pasted some so it may sound a bit choppy but if you know someone that is going through Chemo, this may give you a new insight.

There are odds usually associated with success rates of chemotherapy, but they are only odds. They are not sure outcomes. No matter what the odds, someone that has cancer probably does not feel that lucky.

Throughout chemotherapy, one lives in conflict. On the one hand, there must be some kind of medial hope or the procedures and drugs would not be an option. On the other hand, the loved ones and the medical staff that rely simply on the numbers forget about the reality for the patient. Those that are healthy understand hope in a different way. It is easier to hope for something that is like a cherry on top. I hope I get a promotion; I hope this cold goes away by the weekend; I hope my kids have fun at the beach. For a patient going through chemo, hope is not just a nice thing to have. Hope is what you hang on to when you are so sick that life does not matter much.

Patients should know the truth of their illness and be able to feel all the emotions that legitimately come with vomit, losing hair, suppositories, pain and exhaustion. When a patient can see the truth and path before them, they can know that they will be afraid and it is okay; and the journey ahead will be difficult. As pastoral caregivers, we need to be able to sit with patients in the fear and anger and sadness without trying to move them beyond that point. Perhaps the patient and the pastoral caregiver need to remember Psalm 46. “Be still, and know that I am God.” In the fear, God is there. In the anger, God is there, and in the sadness, God is there. Let us just sit with that.

There is always fear that sickness will disrupt chemotherapy schedules. Wow. There is conflict in that statement. Chemotherapy makes a patient sick, but the sickness of it lets the patient hang on to a little bit of hope. Being sick in a way that you cannot continue the treatments would make one afraid that the hope is leaving. It seems like on the other end of the spectrum, when the chemotherapy is over, a patient would find fear waiting for him or her.

Hospitals separate physical treatment from emotional care. That is the space that pastoral caregivers need to fill. Feelings and loved ones can be treated as outsiders. The patient and everyone else receive the message that it is all about the illness. The patient is diminished to cancer. Relationships with loved ones keep each of us going. We build our lives around our love for others. When a loved one suffers, we all suffer. Healthcare personnel should acknowledge this, but as pastoral caregivers, this connection is essential. We are not dealing with an illness. We are dealing with lives that are changing because someone is ill.

When the patient was healthy, it was easy to see them filled with gifts. When the illness comes, gifts do not go away. As chaplains, we should shine a light on their gifts and the value of their life. Stories we tell ourselves about what is happening to us are dangerous because they are powerful. So, as a chaplain, what story can I help someone create for themselves?

I am reminded of a boxer who goes into the ring to fight for a title or to be a champion. At that moment, the only thing that is important is the fight. Patients do not want to let illness be about one thing. If someone has cancer, they cannot neatly tie it with a bow and put it on the shelf when they are tired or angry or sad. Cancer is a part of their life and needs to be incorporated into life. Cancer may be disruptive but it does not define someone. They can only take what happens to them and continue to look for possibilities of how to live. There is a stigma of cancer, but it is often summed up well when it seems that the patient never stops thinking that cancer says something about their worth.

I want to always look for the light of God, and when I see it, let me announce it with joy and with a mirror in my hand, so all can see. It’s important for all people to tell their stories. As we actively listen to stories, we are recognizing the importance of the storyteller. Let us help people hear what gives their life meaning and to claim it and find ways to live it.

Although I don’t know the author, I love a quote I’ve heard before, “What do we live for if not to make the world less difficult for each other?” Sometimes the only thing that makes life easier is to know that we are not alone.

1 comment:

  1. Sue,
    Thank you for writing this. I hope many clinical folks read it and take it to heart. I especially liked the part about sitting with the patient wherever they are at that moment. There is a delicate tension between the cancer truly becoming the focus of a patient's life (as well as their family's)during treatment and the need to retain and maintain their identity apart from cancer. Professional caregivers don't meet a patient until they're a patient. As a social worker, I believe that pastoral care and social workers have the privilege and responsibility to see the person and not the cancer and then empower the clinical staff to see it for themselves.