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Two studies recently have found a striking association between faith and the medical decisions of terminal cancer patients at the end of life. In both cases, religious faith often led patients to choose more aggressive medical care at the end of life.

Michael Balboni, M.Div. Th.M., is a researcher at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Ph.D. candidate at Boston University. The research team he belongs to has looked at how people cope with cancer.

What has the Coping with Cancer Study shown?

While I didn’t play a role in the initial paper, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it looked at positive and negative religious coping. Positive would be things like being at peace with God and feeling supported by one’s religious community. Negative religious coping would be feeling angry with God or feeling judged by God.

The researchers who worked on that paper split the group in two, high and low religious copers. Those who were in the high group had a strong association with preferring heroic life-prolonging measures. There is a six-fold increase in preference for aggressive measures at the end of life. High religious copers were also less likely to have a living will, a health care proxy, or Do Not Resuscitate orders.

In actual practice, high religious copers ended up being three times more likely to actually receive some type of intensive life-prolonging care, which was defined as things like receiving mechanical ventilation or being in the intensive care unit.

Unfortunately, we do not know the exact religious or spiritual reasons why high religious copers receive aggressive care at life’s end.

The next paper, which you co-authored, found people were better off if they received their spiritual care from medical staff.

There are three findings regarding the last week of life and medical choices that are being made. Among the entire sample, patients whose spiritual needs were largely or completely met by [their] medical team [ … ] were three times more likely to go into hospice, versus those who said their spiritual needs were not supported by the medical team.

Then, looking at the high religious coping group, they were five times less likely to receive aggressive care and five times more [likely] to enter hospice when hospital staff cared for them spiritually. We’re seeing a greater effect among high religious copers.

Do you know what pastors and spiritual caregivers are telling their congregants who are sick with cancer?

Please read the full interview at Christianity Today.

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