Persons of faith more likely to cling through suffering
April 6 2009 by Norman Jameson, BR Editor

My sister is a nurse in a large veteran’s hospital and sees incidents of cancer too numerous to count. It is a dreaded disease because it appears in so many varieties, it is so often deadly, and its treatment is insufferable.

Among cancer patients my nurse sister observes higher anxiety among those newly diagnosed, than among those for whom it has recurred after several years in remission.

It is as if they knew it was coming back and the anxiety of waiting for that news is finally over and they can deal with it head on—either fighting it further or accepting the inevitable and deciding how best to invest the earth days that remain.

I am grateful at Easter not just for faith in the risen Jesus, but also for faith’s assurance that death has neither sting, nor victory.

So a story by G. Jeffrey MacDonald, published by Religion News Service in March, surprised me.

It seems the more religious a person is, the more likely he or she will cling to life until the last agonizing breath, sparing no expense, personal suffering or exhaustion by caregivers.

I say surprising because, while life is wonderful, since I became a Christian as an adult I’ve believed the Christian songs and sermons I heard that said we are just passing through; we are strangers in this land and are not to make it our home.

I wrestle with the notion, as did the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians 1:20-26, that “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” It seems Paul was torn between the fruitful labor of his work in the vineyard of souls on earth; and his desire “to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.”

He was glad to hang around, if that’s what God wanted, because he knew the Philippians needed his encouragement.

MacDonald quotes Kevin Brumett, 31, fighting lung cancer that spread to his brain. “God is giving me the strength to fight this as hard and as long as I possibly can,” Brumett said.

New research suggests that cancer fighters like Brumett may be more likely to exacerbate their own suffering in the final days of life and to leave behind caregivers who have a hard time adjusting to bereavement, MacDonald wrote.

MacDonald said a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that religious patients “were three times more likely to opt for mechanical ventilation and other intensive procedures in their last week of life.”

Because religious patients trust in God’s sovereignty and an afterlife, “one might expect them to be more accepting of death and let nature take its course at the end of life, rather than pursuing very aggressive treatments,” said Dr. Andrea Phelps, lead author of a study by Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

She gave a few reasons why she thinks religious cancer patients commonly opt for aggressive care in their final days. Among the possibilities:
faith leads to optimism, even when a prognosis is bleak;
faith gives purpose to suffering, and in turn helps patients muster stamina for invasive treatments;
beliefs about sanctity of life may give rise to a quest to prolong life at almost any cost.
Phelps said she and her colleagues were concerned “because aggressive care, at least among cancer patients, is a difficult and burdensome treatment that medically doesn’t usually provide a whole lot of benefit.”

World walking, cross carrying evangelist Arthur Blessitt estimated that Jesus walked 3,125 miles during his public ministry. Jesus knew that every step brought him closer to the cross, yet He never flinched.

On trial He absorbed the lies and accusations silently, except to affirm the high priest’s question/statement asking Jesus to declare whether or not “you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” (Matt. 26:63)

Jesus saw the cross. He knew the pain to come. But He saw beyond the cross and simply shed this life when His mission was accomplished.

Of course there is no direct parallel between a terminally ill Christian accepting that fate and living fully in his or her remaining days, and Jesus embracing His death on the cross. But consider that the destination is the same — life beyond the cross, through the passage of death.

How is that so? Because Jesus carved the pathway for us, not only to the cross, for that alone would be without value and leave us hopeless. But He broke through the ceiling of death and opened the heavens to our own rising souls. That is the celebration of Easter, the celebration of life. Victory over death.

We can walk toward that future day by day confident that for a Christian life is defined far more fully than “one more breath.”

And death is far less frightening than to merit the marshaled resources of medical machinery and miserable months in the face of inevitable outcomes.

Have you had this conversation with your spouse or caregiver?

What heroic measures do you want them to undertake to keep your body present on this side of the veil? What level of suffering are you willing to endure to delay your welcome home?

Tad Woodhull, 75, has had two bouts of cancer and watched his brother endure a “miserable” final six month fight.

“I would go with faith rather than put myself and my family through a version of hell,” says Woodhull. In a late stage and bleak situation, he said he’d decline invasive medical options and instead trust God with his soul.

You alone can make those decisions for yourself. Do it while you are able.

4/6/2009 8:06:00 AM by Norman Jameson, BR Editor | with 0 comments

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