Hope, Gratitude, and Spirituality: What They Mean to Cancer Patients

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Hope, spirituality, and gratitude can provide a foundation on which patients can build their new life.
Hope, spirituality, and gratitude can provide a foundation on which patients can build their new life.

As a social worker, I have come to understand the different ways patients redefine hope, gratitude, and spirituality after being told they have cancer. I define hopeas a belief that no matter how bleak things are at the present there is still reason for optimism and a belief it will get better; that what people want can/will happen. Gratitudeis being thankful for the things you have rather than focusing on your problems. It can change the way we deal with the world, promoting thoughts and behaviors that are supportive of those around us, which in turn inspires positive feelings of compassion and love offering healing for ourselves. 

I define spiritualityas a belief that our spirit is connected to a larger power, something more powerful than ourselves that helps us overcome adversity. Patients with newly diagnosed cancer search for understanding of what their life is going to be like during treatment and after it ends. During this time, they often re-evaluate past experiences and worry about what their future might look like. I work with patients who are searching for stability — or what they once called normal — while struggling with the stress and crisis of cancer. During this journey, a new reality sets in and what was once meaningful and important in life can suddenly change. Some patients struggle harder to hang onto who they were, whereas others find peace in letting go of control and opening up to what is often called their new normal. Those who let go while remaining involved often discover new meaning in life that helps them move forward. 

As an oncology social worker, I help cancer patients grieve the loss of who they were. Part of that is also helping them see that although cancer might define who they are now, it will eventually become just a part of their life. This has the potential to strengthen their purpose or open the door to new possibilities of who they can be. The cornerstone of my role is reminding them of the importance of hope and helping them explore what it means to them. 

Rituals, disclosure, illness, and death are all shaped by our culture. As a multicultural social worker, I have the knowledge to help them look at spirituality, gratitude, and hope through their cultural lens and language. Multicultural people have similar ways of coping but different ways of viewing their situation. I find it fascinating to witness the many cross cultural tools people use to help them survive a crisis of cancer and get to the place where they can ask, “Where do I go from here?” My reward comes in helping them explore hope as a way back home. 

Hope, spirituality, and gratitude, however they are perceived, provide a foundation on which patients can build steps to a new normal. In my work, I have patients focus on strengthening existing coping skills first. I help them understand the process, explaining the roles of everyone on the medical team; this is especially important for those whose primary language is not English. 

Most importantly, I provide a safe place for them to confront their fears and resistance, which are often founded on old experiences with cancer or cultural connotations. Keeping in mind that this is a process for each patient, some of whom come to the realization that no matter how much we try to control our lives, uncertainty is always there. But during this process, many people I've worked with find new meaning in enjoying their life with family and friends. Others find new paths or change what wasn't working before cancer became a part of their lives. 

While in treatment, patients and caregivers can become overwhelmed. Hope and spirituality can help them get through and define meaning. After treatment, gratitude helps put meaning into action. 

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