Cancer patients see hope in spiritual support – Daily Bread – 05/07/2014

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Now seven years in remission, Cori Roth, 68, said that she wants to “pay it forward” after being on the receiving end.

“Once you have been through hell several times, it changes you,” said Roth, of Arlington Heights. “You are more considerate and understanding, with a compassion for others. It just makes you a better person. You stop thinking about yourself.”

She helps run a 12-step program for families of substance abusers and sees a “world of hurt out there.”

“If you don’t have faith, how do you get through tough times?” she asked.

 

 

Cancer patients see hope in spiritual support

May 04, 2014|By Lisa Black, Chicago Tribune reporter

Randy Hammond takes notes during a cancer support meeting run by Willow Creek Community Church at the Wellness Place in Palatine. Hammond, in remission from non-Hodgkin lymphoma for nine years, says the best help a cancer ministry can offer is hope.

Randy Hammond takes notes during a cancer support meeting run by Willow Creek Community Church at the Wellness Place in Palatine. Hammond, in remission from non-Hodgkin lymphoma for nine years, says the best help a cancer ministry can offer is hope. (Kristan Lieb, Photo for the Chicago Tribune)

 

The night Randy Hammond almost died, he remembers drifting, formlessly, out of his bed and through the air.

“I remember looking down on my body, and there was no life in it. It was just a shell,” said Hammond, who had been ill with cancer and congestive heart failure. “I could think, I could see, I could feel. I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, there really is a spirit. I am a spirit. God’s taking me to heaven.’ I started to drift out of the room.”

But Hammond prayed to God not to take him yet. “They’ll all be disappointed,” he recalled praying about his loved ones. “I think you should send me back.”

When he awoke the next day, he saw little but the deep blue sky outside his window and the white stucco walls of an unfamiliar building. A tall man walked in wearing a red sweater, his alabaster hair slicked back.

“Are you Randy Hammond? Can you sign here?” asked the man, who Hammond presumed was St. Peter.

As it turned out, the man was delivering flowers from friends, and Hammond, 67, lived to tell his story many times — often from the Wellness Place in Palatine.

There, others share their own stories during twice-monthly meetings, often filled with anguish, doubt, fear and anger. Most are dealing with cancer, or are caregivers, and they don’t ask to be fixed. They just want to be heard, their members say.

The cancer support group is run by Willow Creek Community Church, which has demonstrated its program to other churches as a model since its inception in 2000.

The leaders of the South Barrington church have worked closely with the Rev. Percy McCray Jr., a Zion minister whose goal has been to start similar “cancer care ministries” worldwide. McCray is the founder of Our Journey of Hope, which recently trained pastors from Chicago, Ohio, California, Michigan and Indiana during a two-day conference on how to offer cancer support at their own houses of worship.

While McCray’s ministry is Christian-based, he sees a need for every type of congregation to pay more attention to those affected by cancer. This year, authorities estimate there will be more than 1.6 million new cancer cases diagnosed and nearly 600,000 deaths related to the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

Medical advancements have allowed many to live longer with cancer, yet spirituality “is viewed as supplementary. It’s viewed as almost an afterthought,” McCray said.

“Cancer attacks hope,” he said. “People deal with fear, depression and uncertainty on a daily basis.”

He compares a cancer diagnosis to the nation’s reaction after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. People flocked to church the following weekend, searching for answers while in a shared state of shock, he said.

“People were forced to think about dying,” said McCray, director of pastoral care at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. “We think we are going to live forever, don’t we? All of a sudden, America was traumatized.”

A cancer diagnosis forces a similar reckoning with mortality, he said, and many patients stop taking their lives for granted.

“May I suggest that is a good thing?” McCray said. “Living every moment and making sure it counts. That’s a gift.”

Those who have been through their own cancer journeys sometimes find gratification through helping others.

Now seven years in remission, Cori Roth, 68, said that she wants to “pay it forward” after being on the receiving end.

“Once you have been through hell several times, it changes you,” said Roth, of Arlington Heights. “You are more considerate and understanding, with a compassion for others. It just makes you a better person. You stop thinking about yourself.”

She helps run a 12-step program for families of substance abusers and sees a “world of hurt out there.”

“If you don’t have faith, how do you get through tough times?” she asked.

Rosemary Riddle, 69, had begun breast cancer treatment about six months before Willow Creek started its support group.

“There were days that I felt I could barely crawl to get there, but I would receive an infusion of hope when I would come to group,” said the Hoffman Estates woman. “The people in our group know how important it is to be heard. When you listen to someone with engaged listening, they feel valued. They feel loved.”

Some who have participated in the group are angry, their faith shaken — and no one attempts to convince them that those feelings are unjustified or wrong, said Al Peart, one of the Willow Creek group’s leaders.

His own wife, Dee, has fought cancer multiple times.

“We take people wherever they are,” Peart said. “Our meetings are really based on how you can find faith in the midst of your cancer, but understanding we are all in a different journeys.”

Studies have shown that spiritual well-being, especially when defined as “a sense of meaning and peace,” has a significant association with cancer patients’ ability to continue to enjoy life despite severe pain or fatigue, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“For every person, it’s going to be very individual and very personal,” said Kathy Scortino, clinical director at the Wellness Place, a cancer education and support organization whose general services are not religious-based. “(Some patients) may not have a connection to a church or community but feel this strong sense of connection to something higher than themselves. The key thing I see is that connection with other people.”

In the health care field, spirituality is defined as a person’s search for meaning, purpose and connection, and its broad scope includes atheists, agnostics and humanists as well as those who are religious, said Christina Puchalski, founder and director of the George Washington University Institute for Spirituality and Health.

“Spirituality is sometimes thought of as ultimate or transcendent meaning, and that could include nature, the arts, family or God,” she said.

Her research has led her to encourage doctors to conduct spirituality assessments of new patients, especially for those in palliative care, to discern their spiritual history and whether they’re connected to spiritual communities, faith-based or otherwise.

“We hope that it becomes uniform,” Puchalski said. “Spirituality is an essential element of whole-person care. To ignore spiritual distress can result in poor-quality care. To integrate spirituality, people find hope and healing in the midst of stress or illness. ”

Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski, co-leader of the Jewish Healing Network of Chicago, said his organization has begun investigating how it can help people cope with illness. Some people want help with theological questions, but most often, he said, “what they want is presence. They want somebody to be with them and support them.”

“We are beginning to ask these questions: What does spiritual support mean to people with cancer, with Parkinson’s, with other diseases?” Ozarowski said. “The struggle we find is how to provide that kind of support. People who are managing a chronic illness or are caregivers, they don’t have time to come to us. They are busy managing the illness. … Are there other ways to do it?”

Spiritual leaders are sometimes asked if they are giving people false hope.

McCray’s answer: “Everyone has a right to believe that all things are possible.”

He helps dispel patients’ notions that they are being punished, or that it is possible to strike a deal with God, he said.

“God doesn’t work like that,” he said. “Stop treating God like a used salesperson.”

For Hammond, in remission from non-Hodgkin lymphoma for nine years, the best help a cancer ministry can offer is hope. When diagnosed in 2002, he kept a journal, writing down all of his fears and prayer requests for his future.

“I look back at my journal and think, ‘I can’t believe I prayed those prayers,'” he said. “They all came true.”

lblack@tribune.com

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-05-04/news/ct-cancer-ministry-met-20140504_1_cancer-treatment-centers-cancer-patients-cancer-support-group/2