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Healing Your Spirit

by Kava Schafer, MDIV, MA

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Every day in my work as a hospital chaplain I meet with people who are living with cancer in ways that inspire me. Many of these folks tell me they cultivate spiritual well-being, even while dealing with a serious diagnosis or while facing treatment challenges. And yet, it is not at all unusual for these situations to bring survivors and their families to the existential brink. Every­thing of value and importance may feel under threat as uncertainty grows. Even with a positive attitude and good progress, something will feel lost. There are many responses to this sense of rupture between life before cancer and life with cancer.

From my vantage point, I see that crisis brings opportunity for self- reflection. As human beings we seem to have this innate capacity to craft new meaning when faced with adversity. One way we do that is through a pro­cess of questioning and evaluating what is happening to us. Through that process, we may find that what once sustained and supported life may actu­ally deepen through the experience of illness. There is also the potential that our system of meaning or values may not prove sufficiently elastic to create safety or lead to ways to cope and move in life-enhancing ways through the experience of cancer.

Everything of value and importance may feel under threat.

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Kava Schafer

It is human to question and wonder why illness comes, but if the questions oppress and strangle the spirit, spiritual distress may appear. When recognized and attended to, spiritual struggle may lead to new transformational spiritual insights and healing. In fact, it often does, but if it is ignored, it has the power to poison the spirit and create obstacles to healing. It is such a potent force that spiritual pain may actually make it difficult to manage physical pain effectively.

This is not difficult to understand since, for many, spirituality is the uni­fying core of our being; it is that which animates us, gives our lives meaning, and fuels our aspirations. It is not mea­surable, but it is the elusive factor that fosters resiliency in the experiences of change. Many people express their spirituality through religious beliefs and practices, but there are countless others who express their spirituality in non-religious ways through family, communion with nature, art, or service to others, to name a few. Living with cancer requires the capacity to draw on every available resource, and if one’s spiritual wholeness is fractured, it makes sense that depression or in­creased anxiety might be among the resulting symptoms.

In my experience, it is not unusual for people to admit that events from the past resurface and cause them to reflect on a possible connection be­tween the past and their cancer. These responses might be related to religious beliefs that carry additional weighted responsibility.

As a chaplain, I frequently hear people wonder if they are being pun­ished for past mistakes. Why has a loving God let this happen to me? Was there something I did that needs forgiveness? Perhaps a past regretted action or omission has come back to haunt me, even if it has been con­fessed to and forgiven. Religious representatives may have offered absolution, but it is often harder to forgive ourselves.

As the person struggles privately with these thoughts, increased sleep­lessness, reduced hope for the future, anxiety, and emotional flatness aren’t unusual. If that is not complicated enough, anger at God might be under the surface. Take any one of these possibilities, partner it with shame and guilt, and it becomes easier to see why much of this remains hidden.

Cancer is difficult enough without these complications. If you or someone you love is carrying guilt, laboring under a sense of punishment, or strug­gling angrily and despairingly with their religious faith, I encourage you or your loved one to seek the help of a religious or spiritual specialist who is skilled and compassionate. Delicacy may require that the person of choice be someone outside of your current frame of reference. The core advice is to seek companionship from someone trustworthy and knowledgeable. This language implies a Chris­tian religious perspective, but spiritual distress occurs in other religious frameworks, and just as frequently occurs in people who are non-religious. No one is immune from spiritual distress and no one should struggle alone without hope of spiritual healing.

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Kava Schafer is a certified spiritual director and palliative care chaplain at University of Pennsylvania Health System in Philadelphia, PA.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2015.