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Cancer patients' spiritual needs

22nd December 2009

Addressing the spiritual needs of cancer sufferers may be just as important as treating them, according to a recent US study.

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The study focused on 670 cancer patients who were at the end of their lives.

Researchers reported that the two most important things to them were controlling their pain and finding peace with the divine.

Advanced cancer patients whose spiritual needs had been fulfilled by doctors were much more likely to decide to enter hospices, as well as to forgo aggressive treatments such as mechanical ventilation and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Lead author Tracy Anne Balboni, a radiation oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, said that medicine did not tend to see how people's well-being can affect their physical health.

Of the 10 advanced cancer patients who were subjects in the study, at least six reported that their spiritual needs had not been addressed.

Balboni said that more religious patients would perhaps think twice about undergoing aggressive care or futile medical procedures that only lengthen their lives by short spans of time.

Caregivers of the 343 study subjects who eventually died were interviewed by the research team.

The study authors defined spiritual care as patient-perceived support of their spiritual needs by their medical team.

Of the 670 subjects, 17% went into aggressive treatment during their final week of life.

The people who received spiritual support from their doctors, nurses, or chaplains reported a higher quality of life, and were nearly four times as likely to enter hospices.

Balboni said that his team found that patients whose spiritual needs were well-supported seemed to transition to hospice more frequently and had a marked reduction in the use of aggressive care.

Harold Koenig of the Centre for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University said that few people were getting their spiritual needs met by the medical system.

He said that many doctors are uncomfortable discussing spirituality and haven't been trained to do so, and that religious centres need to talk about the end of life as a means of educating people theologically.

 

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