Cancer can be an awkward disease. You want to help a parishioner who is ill but may not be confident just how to do it. You want to make sure your efforts are well received and appropriate for the situation. The following tips come from Drs. Bill and Susie Buchholz, an oncologist-psychologist team with over twenty-three years experience working with patients and their caregivers.
1 Don't make assumptions.
Find out what is needed, ask or observe. Though you may feel more comfortable with a plan of what you're going to do or say before you call or visit, don't let that plan blind you to what is needed at that moment. The circumstances may be different from what you expected. Be flexible and open to what your parishioner wants. If you are comfortable being spontaneous, come without an agenda.
2 Be aware of your projections.
We all have an image of cancer and what it's like to have it. Because your parishioner has been dealing with it personally, they may have a different understanding of the disease. Distinguish between your feelings and attitudes and theirs. If you feel anxious or depressed, is it something that you bring with you or is it coming from them? Unless you're doing their funeral, they are still alive and have a future. Treat them that way.
3 Don't be afraid of contacting their doctor.
You have a right to be involved in the parishioner's care, particularly if they asked you. Your role need not conflict with the doctor's, even if you disagree on certain aspects of care. Speak up as an advocate for the patient. You can often help the doctor in providing overall care by identifying areas of need or supporting the doctor-patient relationship.
4 Spiritual help can augment medical treatment
There is an emerging body of research showing that religion and religious activities can influence health. Holistic health--attention to mind, body and spirit--is becoming more widely accepted. You can help empower your parishioners to take an active role in their own health without creating false hope.
5 Mobilize social support.
Religious institutions can help compensate for the inadequacies of the medical system. The strain on the medical system has created large cracks through which patients may fall unless they have an advocate. You can develop a health ministry or volunteer system to insure that patient needs are met.
November 17, 2001