A DEVOUT 35-year-old Latina woman with two young children lies in the intensive-care unit (ICU) of a Boston-area hospital, dying from cancer. With no sign of improvement, the medical team advises withdrawing life support, but the woman’s husband refuses. The couple has been pushing for aggressive therapies, along with prayer support. Members of their Pentecostal church hold vigils at the woman’s bedside, praying that God will perform a miracle and cure her, but eventually she dies.
With most Americans placing a high value on faith, it’s no surprise that religious and spiritual beliefs can be a source of comfort, hope, and meaning during life’s most fraught moments, like those faced by this family.
“Illness is a spiritual experience for most patients with advanced disease,” says Tracy A. Balboni, associate professor of radiation oncology at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and a radiation oncologist and palliative-care physician at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center. “Patients want to be seen as whole persons, not just as bodies affected by illness.” But doctors, she says, are often unprepared to connect body and soul. “As I went through medical training, I was given tools to manage the physical realities of disease, but barely any to recognize or engage the spiritual and existential aspects of illness. They were clearly considered separate, even though there were so many natural connections, particularly in the setting of incurable disease.”
[Continued in .pdf below]