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Religious Faith Helps Cancer Patients


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By Margarita Nahapetyan

Strong religious faith can help terminally ill cancer patients to better handle and cope with their disease during their last weeks of life, according to Boston scientists.

While the majority of patients, religious or not, do not choose aggressive end-of-life therapy in order to prolong their life, a brand new study on this matter shows that patients with religious faith are three times more likely to seek intensive life-prolonging care, compared to non-religious patients. To come up with this results, the experts from the Dana Farber Cancer Institute conducted a 45-minute survey with 345 ill patients.

At the beginning of the study all the patients were asked about how much they relied upon religion to handle their condition. Nearly 80 per cent said that they relied on religion to a moderate extent, while to 32 per cent of the respondents, it was the most important thing that kept them going. More than a half said that they prayed, meditated or participated in religious studies at least on a daily basis. Among the faiths of individuals who took part in the study, were Catholics, unspecified Protestants, Baptists and "other."

Researchers divided ill patients in two separate groups - those with positive religious coping, when patients were seeking "God's love and care," and those with negative religious coping, when individuals lived with a belief that God has punished or abandoned them. As a result, they found that patients who used positive religious coping were much more likely to wish that doctors did everything possible they could in order to keep them alive. In addition, these patients were less likely to be prepared for death, most of them did not have advanced planning such as written living wills (29 per cent in opposite to 68 per cent who were less religious), or had given someone power of attorney, which is the ability to act on behalf of someone else (34 per cent of believers compared to 64 per cent of non-religious patients).

The findings showed that patients with high levels of positive religious coping were mostly black or Hispanic. They also tended to have lower levels of education, were less likely to have medical insurance, or be married, compared to the patients who reported a low faith in religion. Even after the experts took into consideration factors that could have affected patients' choices of therapy, such as age, race/ethnicity, household income or psychological distress, religious coping remained the most important factor and was still found to be associated with receiving aggressive medical care. Also, of all the patients who reported a high level of religious coping, 11 per cent had mechanical ventilation during their last week of life and nearly 7.5 per cent underwent cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), to compare with 3.6 per cent and 1.8 per cent of non-believers.

The researchers say that it is not entirely clear why terminally ill patients who have strong faith in their religion, tend to choose more life-prolonging medical treatment. In their opinion, these patients may be less likely to believe their doctors when being told that there is nothing more to be done. It looks like these people consider God as their last hope, who, they think, will save them by granting some miracle, said Holly G. Prigerson, PhD, of the department of psycho-oncology and palliative care at Dana Farber. As a final result, she noted, aggressive care did not predict any differences in survival and did not lead to a more pleasant end.

The experts wrote in their report that they saw 2 types of people with religious faith - very religious people who sought for an aggressive treatment, and religious people who knew that there is always a time for everything, a time to be born and a time to die.

A study was published this week in the latest edition of Journal of the American Medical Association.

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