Tara Caudle is a chaplain in the Conway Regional Health System in Arkansas.

The care of patients with cancer is fraught with ethical situations and dilemmas that begin with a patient’s initial diagnosis. Chaplains are often involved with patients with cancer and their families throughout their illness. This is especially true as their disease progresses and they must begin discussions on treatment options, withdrawal of treatment, and end-of-life care. 

In the midst of varying family dynamics, financial concerns, cultural diversity, and religious preferences, the chaplain is present to identify and acknowledge these factors and assist the patient, family, and staff in preserving the patient’s autonomy throughout the decision-making process.

When considering patients’ religious background, it’s important to partake in ongoing education in cultural competency, along with health literacy, as it can certainly be a way for oncology nurses to feel more comfortable in ethical situations involving religion or spirituality. This type of training not only enables healthcare providers to recognize certain religious and spiritual beliefs that may influence a patient’s care-related decisions, but it also provides us with the opportunity to further examine our own beliefs and recognize the ways in which they influence the way we provide care to our patients and families.

If your patient is struggling with a particular decision, it’s never too late or too early to consult with a chaplain. A chaplain who has received clinical training will be receptive to the concerns of both the staff and the patient and his or her family. It’s important to keep in mind that the needs of a patient and his or her family change daily throughout their experience with this illness. 

Often patients may defer their decisions to family members or healthcare professionals. It’s always important to encourage an active role in their treatment. As healthcare providers, I believe it is our duty to empower patients and create space for them to consider all of the options available to them, without any judgment or promotion of our own beliefs; we must help patients feel comfortable in slowing down the process, if they need to, in order to make the best decision about their care.

When a patient receives a cancer diagnosis, their entire existence is immediately called into question. They must begin the process of reframing their lives in the context of this disease. As healthcare providers, we each have a role in assisting patients, and their families, in facilitating this process. It’s important to respect the faith traditions, beliefs, and goals of each patient and do our best to provide them with what they see as a positive outcome.