Religion is a source of strength for many people. Many parents and children find that their faith is strengthened by the cancer ordeal, while some begin to question their beliefs. Others, who have not relied on religion in the past, turn to it now.
Most hospitals have staff chaplains who are available for counseling, religious services, prayer, and other types of spiritual guidance. Often, the chaplain visits families soon after diagnosis and is available on an on-call basis. As with any mental health encounter, some approaches that work well with one family may not be helpful others.
The day after my daughter was diagnosed, a chaplain started coming to the room every day. She was very nice, but I felt like she wanted me to talk about the cancer, and I just couldn't. I clearly remember feeling as if my body parts were being held together by the weakest of threads. I felt if I started talking, or even said the word leukemia, that those threads holding me together would break and I would fly apart into a million pieces. So we chatted about inconsequential things until one day I thanked her for coming, but said I felt strong enough to start talking to my family and friends.
When Shawn was first diagnosed, Father Ron came in, and we all just really bonded with him. Shawn was in the hospital most of the first year, so we had a chance to become very close. Often Shawn would ask for Father Ron before he had to have a painful procedure. Father Ron would talk to him, give him a little stuffed animal and a big hug, and then Shawn would feel fine.
When Shawn was very ill, I began to worry about the fact that he had never been baptized, and I asked Father Ron to baptize him in the chapel. We ended up going to his own little church nearby, and we had a private service with just godparents and family, because Shawn's counts were so low. It was a wonderful, special service; I'll never forget it.
Parents who were members of a church, synagogue, or mosque prior to the diagnosis of their childs cancer derive great comfort from the clergy and members of their home religious base. Members of the congregation usually rally around the family, providing meals, baby-sitting, prayers, and support. Regular visits from clergy provide spiritual sustenance throughout the initial crisis and subsequent years of treatment.
We belong to a religious study group that has met weekly for eight years. In our group during that time there have been three cancer diagnoses and one of multiple sclerosis. We have all become an incredibly supportive family, and we share the burdens. I cannot begin to list the many wonderful things these people have done for us. They consistently put their lives on hold to help. They fill the freezer, clean the house, support us financially, parent our children. They do the laundry covered with vomit. They quietly appear, help, then disappear. I can call any one of them at 3:00 A.M. in the depths of despair and find comfort.
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