We know some people want to share their stories, in their own words, and in their own way. This can be a cathartic experience for the writer and can help to support others going through their own cancer diagnosis or that of a loved one.
Member of our All-Wales Cancer Community, Dr. Neil McKenzie, writes here about his experience of cancer and how his faith saw him through difficult times. This blog raises concerns about how and whether faith is addressed within the assessment of patients needs.
We spoke to NHS colleagues working in cancer care about this issue, and they explained that all patients should have their spiritual needs assessed as part of their holistic needs assessment (HNA). They acknowledge, however, that on occasions patients may not be offered the assessment.
They encourage any patient who isn’t offered a holistic needs assessment or doesn’t feel that their needs are being met raise this with their Cancer Nurse Specialist. How patients’ needs are assessed is an ongoing matter for review and feedback, led by the Person Centred Care team.
A Tale of Two Kidneys
In his story with a similar name, Charles Dickens told the story of Dr. Manette, his 18-year-long imprisonment in the Bastille in Paris and his release to live in London – A Tale of Two Cities. In my story, Dr. McKenzie has a mercifully shorter confinement in hospital before being discharged to return home. However, awaiting a diagnosis followed by even a short stay in hospital, can seem like years.
The purpose of telling my story is to show how providing what I shall call Advanced Holistic Care (AHC), which includes spiritual support, can be immensely helpful. For me, the bottom line is that spiritual care should be offered to all patients whether or not they have a religious faith. Anyone who denies the existence of the human spirit can simply refuse.
AHC differs from ordinary holistic care in that the latter is often two-dimensional – connecting mind and body. On the other hand, AHC is three-dimensional and includes the human spirit. Although an exact definition is elusive, for the purpose of my story the spiritual dimension is broadly the search for meaning in life beyond the purely material. At times of uncertainty such as receiving a diagnosis of cancer, and through the painful process of recovery, this search can become more important. Spiritual support is about helping patients and carers to better understand, accept and even value what is happening to them. In my case I found it very helpful and it certainly speeded recovery.
Interestingly, Dr. Michael Mosley, writing under the heading “Have faith…it can help you lead a longer, healthier life”, says “…studies have shown that people who have religious beliefs are less likely to develop depression and anxiety, in part because their faith provides meaning and hope.”
On Dec.5th 2022 my right kidney was removed along with its 5cm tumour. 48 hours later I was back home. Looking back, the worst part of this pathway was the initial waiting for a diagnosis, wondering what the CT scan results would be. How far had the cancer spread? It was at this stage, when there was no news, that my faith in the God who loves me, proved to be the antidote to anxiety. I can say with complete certainty (and everyone who knows me can confirm this) that, from the moment I made the decision to trust God to supervise the whole process, I experienced peace and calm. I write this as a former university physicist with three degrees - two of which were earned by research - someone used to positing conclusions cautiously after thoroughly scrutinising the evidence. I am certainly not someone with ‘blind faith’ or given to flights of fancy or emotional knee-jerk decisions.
The closer the day came, the more anxiety flexed its muscles. However, my daily Bible readings had landed me right in the middle of Psalms where David had faced various dangers. Everyone knows Psalm 23, The Lord is my Shepherd, and I thought of the line, “Yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” King David in his poetry covers the whole range of human emotions and circumstances. For example I read in Psalm 56 verses 3 and 4, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise— in God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” Well, a surgeon can cut out my kidney! Yet, I can say with complete honesty that my Christian faith enabled me to conquer anxiety, but it wasn’t easy.
With just a week to go, the thoughts that came to me were, “This time next week I’ll be in the operating theatre.” The following day I thought, “This day next week I’ll be in a lot of pain.” These were certainly not groundless or imaginary; they were facts. But I have to say in all honesty that once again, my trust in the love of Jesus was the answer to these worries. Even so, it was a struggle. I would have found it very helpful to speak to someone who understood the vital importance of the spiritual dimension and was able to offer appropriate support.
After the operation as I lay in bed dazed by anaesthetic and in pain, there was no chaplain to visit and provide comfort. It was exercising my spirit in prayer that made all the difference. But I would have been greatly encouraged if a nurse or doctor had offered to pray with me. It is my hope that all patients – as part of the pre-op discussion – should be made aware of any spiritual support which is available as an integral part of their cancer pathway.
I hope that this brief story will help to address the problem where Health professionals often fear the negative consequences of offering spiritual support. In my view, attempts by some ardent atheists to reduce - or even shut down - spiritual support, and intimidate staff who wish to offer this, are unhelpful to patients.
Denying patients and carers access to spiritual support through AHC felt to me like cutting off the third leg of a three-legged stool. Let’s fix it back on.
Dr. Neil. L. McKenzie B.Sc. M.Phil. Ph.D. C. Phys.
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