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Faith Helps Women Cope with Cancer

When women face the dreaded diagnosis of "gynecological cancer," what thoughts assail them? What helps them cope, and what do they expect from their doctors? A new study found fear of pain seizes most, while 93% said their "religious lives helped them sustain their hopes."

In order to discover how to better meet needs of cancer patients, a research team surveyed 108 women undergoing treatment for various stages of gynecological cancer at the University of Michigan. Fear of pain was the patientís most dominant reaction, with difficulty communicating feelings, or feeling abandoned, isolated, or embarrassed less common. Religion stood out as a central support. Also patients wanted their doctors to speak to them frankly about their illness.

Among the 93% of patients whose religion enhanced hope, 736 said religion had a significant place in their lives. Also, 41% noted their religious lives supported their sense of worth. Almost half--49%--felt they had become more religious since having cancer. "Somewhat surprisingly, not one patient noted becoming less religious since being diagnosed with cancer," the researchers commented.

"Since religion is often an important factor in coping with cancer, physicians will be better able to help their patients if they acknowledge this," noted Dr. David Larson, one of the studyís authors and president of the National Institute for Healthcare Research. "This may involve consulting a chaplain and including them on the healthcare team."

Regarding their relationships with their doctors, 96% of the patients wanted "straight talk" about their illness. Some 736 evaluated their doctors by the compassion they showed. Only 43% expected their doctors to defeat the disease, while 736 hoped the cancer would be brought under control.

Based on these findings, the researchers concluded that a sensitive approach to care would involve providing frank information about the illness with compassion, educating the patients on pain relief, maximizing comfort and dignity, and supporting the patients in their religious coping.

" The point is not the endorsement of religion but the endorsement of the patient and the increasing importance religion has for patients as they cope with cancer," the researchers stated.

Reference: Roberts, J.A.; Brown, D.; Elkins, T and Larson, D.B. (1997). "Factors Influencing Views of Patients with Gynecological Cancer About End-of-Life Decisions." American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 176 (1): 166-172.

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