Bridging the gap between spiritual beliefs and medical care

February 06, 2007
About 50 black ministers from New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties attended “Having Faith in Cancer Care,” a seminar hosted by New Hanover Regional Medical Center on Jan. 23. That seminar put into action a goal that was established almost two years ago by the members of the Cancer Community Outreach Board.

“It was a wonderful gathering,” said Rev. Willie Alford, an Outreach Board member who helped plan the event. “The rapport was wonderful, everyone enjoyed the presentations and asked a lot of questions. I am really excited about the outcome.”

The Outreach Board is a group of men and women from the community that offers guidance and advice to medical center staff working on the grant, “Improving Cancer Outcomes in African-Americans.” Very early in the grant the group suggested that working through the churches would be an effective way to reach the target population, and a smaller sub-committee has been working toward that end.

Several members of the Outreach Board have been working with the medical center’s Spiritual Care Department and Coastal AHEC to plan the event.

Those attending the seminar heard clinical as well as personal information. Physicians talked about the disease and the disparities in outcomes seen in African Americans, which include a 30-percent higher death rate from prostate cancer for black men than whites, and a 20-percent higher death rate from breast cancer for black women than whites.

Cancer survivors talked about their experiences and the roles their faith and their doctors had in their outcomes. Chaplains from the medical center’s Spiritual Care Department talked about the ways they work with patients and families while they’re in the hospital.

But the most important part of the seminar came after those presentations, when the ministers talked about their experiences with their own congregations. The conversations encompassed many things: trust issues with the medical establishment, cultural beliefs about cancer being a death sentence, reluctance to admit that one has been diagnosed with cancer, religious beliefs that people get cancer because of past sins, and even the appropriateness for the pastor to discuss topics the parishioner isn’t completely comfortable talking about.

Sue Hamann, lead researcher for the grant, deemed the event a success. The goal was for the event to be a day of mutual learning - for the ministers to learn about a disease that disproportionately affects African-Americans, and for care professionals to learn barriers to blacks getting care that would equalize outcomes, she said.

“We really wanted to start a relationship with some of the pastors we haven’t worked with,” she said. “We wanted to hear issues they have about helping the people in their congregations who have cancer.”

Dr. Patrick Maguire, a radiation oncologist who is principal investigator for the grant, said the event inspired him.

“I could tell we were reaching people we hadn’t touched before,” he said.

During the discussion session, it was also agreed that it is important for pastors and other church leaders to get educated about cancer and the various treatments so they can help eliminate any myths that may surface in congregations. Thus, the next steps will take the grant staff into the churches to help educate as well as to build relationships with the church leaders and the congregation members.

“It was a strong event,” said Rev. James Utley, a member of the Outreach Board and a pastor who attended the seminar. “Now we’re reaching the grass-roots level, which is where we need to be. It was a great start.”

If you would like to have a presentation about cancer for your organization, please call LaSonia Melvin at 910.342.3403.