Cancer repeatedly rears its head in the families engaged in faith communities, triggering clergy and lay caregivers to try to offer emotional and spiritual support that may sometimes come off as light, awkward or strained.
"Most clergy, while they are very well-trained in a lot of aspects of their positions, really don't have a basic understanding of what cancer is," said Jamie Sellar, program director of The Wellness Community in Phoenix, which "provides support, education and hope" to people with cancer and their loved ones. "So, when someone comes to their door and knocks ... says, 'I have been diagnosed with cancer,' they don't have enough information or knowledge, at that point, to really feel comfortable."
To remedy that, about 30 Arizona faith, medical and public organizations have teamed to present a conference, "Facing Cancer With the Faith Community," 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 28 at Doubletree Paradise Valley Resort. The conference is geared to clergy and lay people in caring ministries. Two morning sessions are titled "Understanding Cancer" and "Understanding Emotional Support." In the afternoon, cancer survivors and caregivers will comprise a panel, sharing their stories and taking questions. The final session will feature faith-based cancer patient supporters with practical advice.
The conference is being sponsored by The Wellness Community, the Arizona InterFaith Movement, the Arizona Ecumenical Council and the Arizona Department of Health Services.
The Rev. Richard Morrison, an Episcopal priest, lawyer and two-time cancer survivor, will moderate the event and pose questions to experts. "Part of the object of this conference is to help people avoid making mistakes," he said. "Sometimes we have tried things that were not well-received for one reason or another." People's reactions to being diagnosed with cancer are sharply varied, Morrison said. "Some people really just want to be left alone for a while until they summon up the psychic resources to face the situation and ask for help." Others go for help and support immediately.
One persistent problem, he said: There are trained ministers available to serve cancer patients on a one-on-one basis for a sustained period of time, but patients, for various reasons, won't request them.
"In my priestly ministry, I have also experienced over and over again the phenomenon in which I would send people associated with pastoral care teams to the hospital to call on someone - there's someone appointed for every day of the week," all equipped for sensitive and committed caring, Morrison said. But when they show up at hospital rooms, patients say, "I don't want to talk to you. I want to talk to the priest. Where's the priest?"
Many churches have found ways to "invest authority in various pastoral care teams," he said. Morrison noted that in the Episcopal Church, congregations are repeatedly educated about the role of the quasi-monastic community of women called Daughters of the King, who are trained in pastoral care. "When someone gets a visit from a Daughter of the King, they are usually not confronted and not disappointed," he said. "Patients know that these people come with the authority of the church."
One of the scheduled panelists, Rabbi H. Rafael Goldstein, said cancer should not spell hopelessness. "I will focus on how to find hope when things seem hopeless and helping people recognize that there is no such thing as hopeless situations," said Goldstein, executive director of Temple Kol Ami in northeast Phoenix and a former chaplain of a Jewish community in San Diego. "Hope changes and shifts, and they need to be able to keep track of it."
"Everybody dies at some point, but cancer may not be the cause of death of many people who are living with cancer," he said.
All communities of faith, including Judaism, have ways of "looking at meaning in the face of illness," he said. "You can find a lot of strength and comfort from any spiritual practices." They offer "ways of helping people connect with God in their experience," he said.
Sellar describes the conference as throwing not a pebble, but a boulder, into a lake "and (letting) those ripples kind of go out so that pastors and clergy feel more comfortable" when they sit next to a cancer patient and communicate. The second goal is to get clergy to recognize how important emotional support is to cancer patients, so that congregations "create a culture" for such caring and have an intentional plan in place.
The Wellness Community, a 25-year-old national program that came to Phoenix nine years ago, hosts about 10,000 visits a year from cancer patients. It offers about 100 programs a month, such as yoga, tai chi, nutrition, stress reduction, exercise, visualization and networking of people with specific kinds of cancers.
Sellar said pastors and caregivers need to become more sophisticated about cancers. For example, stage 2 prostate cancer may have a 95 percent to 98 percent survival rate, but stage 4 ovarian cancer has a 5 percent survival rate. "A lot of times, the lack of knowledge causes them to be a little bit uncomfortable in the delivery of services," he said.
Seminaries, he said, sorely lack training and classes on various illnesses and how counseling should address them. Training on chronic mental illness is a commonly overlooked area, he said.
The conference will also address studies that find a greater prevalence of certain cancers, such as breast and cervical cancers, in various demographic groups.
"The majority of people diagnosed with cancer today are going to live through it," Sellar said. "They will end up dying down the road of heart-related issues or something else. But I think there is a prevalence of thought that someone diagnosed with cancer would die from it."
Faith communities can play significant roles in decreasing depression and anxiety "and help (patients) not lose their faith during these trying times," Sellar said.