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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Thursday, February 8, 2007

Cancer patients' spiritual needs unmet, study says

Nearly three-quarters of patients with advanced cancer felt their spiritual needs were not met by the medical system, including chaplains, a survey by Harvard researchers shows. Nearly half of the patients thought their religious communities gave them little or no support.

People who had spiritual support tended to have better quality of life, according to the Coping With Cancer study, based at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. And people who described themselves as religious were twice as likely to want more aggressive treatment to extend their lives, it said. The survey of 230 patients is reported in Saturday's Journal of Clinical Oncology.

"These findings provide further evidence that oncology practitioners really should include a spiritual history as part of a patient's history of social support and culture," Dr. Tracy A. Balboni said in an interview today. She is a senior resident in the Harvard Radiation Oncology Program and the paper's lead author. "It allows the practitioner to know whether something's important to the patient and also makes the statement, 'We understand this might be an important part of dealing with your illness.' "

Most of the people in the study (88 percent) said religion was at least somewhat important to them. More African Americans (89 percent) and Hispanics (79 percent) than whites (59 percent) said it was very important.

As people got sicker, they were less able to attend religious services. Just over half (52 percent) reported getting visits from chaplains or other clergy members.

Most patients (72 percent) said the medical system offered little spiritual support, and 47 percent said the same about their religious community.

Physicians may be leery of overstepping their bounds by asking their patients about religion, the authors wrote. In an accompanying editorial, Betty Ferrell, a research scientist in the City of Hope Cancer Center's department of nursing research and education, urges doctors to take a different approach.

"This report is a strong statement of a seriously unmet need in the vast majority of patients in our care," she wrote. "The oncologist who dares to ask about spirituality imparts a vital message to patients that they are being cared for by someone who has not forgotten that a broken patient remains a whole person, and that healing transcends survival."

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:00 PM
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