Ask the Expert: Making Meaning of Your Diagnosis

Watch Rev. Dr. Paula Teague discuss strategies for coping with lung cancer and moving forward with a lung cancer diagnosis.

Paula Teague: In making meaning of a diagnosis, patients reach both inside and outside themselves for support and information. Sometimes, we talk about in terms of having faith or connecting with your spirituality to find support within yourself or even from others. A diagnosis of lung cancer cannot be taken in all at once. It's a process.

A diagnosis, there's often a phase of shock followed by a feeling of grief or loss. The initial diagnosis can be about what will happen physically and practically but it eventually hits you emotionally and spiritually as well.

A lung cancer diagnosis is an unfamiliar place that you'll need to get to know. It is a process and it can be helpful to look at it as a grief process. A tool that I've used when I help patients work through this is called The Grief Wheel. And The Grief Wheel is really helpful because what it describes are all the different layers of what's happening.

A person might have a relationship loss that happens out of their experience of a lung cancer diagnosis, but they also might have what's called an intrapsychic loss which is how people see themselves. Or they might have a role loss that they've always been the provider for the family, for example, and now they're sick and are not able to do that.

There are obviously functional losses that also happen for people so that they're not able to do the things that they've wanted to do before. There are material losses. Illness really stresses finances and the way that a person has a job and understands the way they provide for themselves and their families. All those layers are captured in The Grief Wheel.


Well, I ask patients to think about what they find meaningful and that might be the first time that they really sat back and consider that. When they do that, they can start to think about how to approach incorporating the diagnosis into their life and how to move forward. Finding peace during this tumultuous time might be through relationships with friends or family or working or volunteering.

Spirituality is so connected with social resources and community and family and relationships that can't be separated out. Spirituality doesn't necessarily mean religion. Spirituality is essentially what brings meaning to an individual's life, like a sense of peace or purpose and connection with another people. There's a profound connection between spiritual care and medical care.

First, it's how it informs decision-making about treatment and care and then second, how patients cope with their illness and their situation. Well, it's important to recognize that the spiritual aspects of coping with the disease are important once you've addressed the physical aspects. You need to address that pain first and then spiritual care can complement the medical care.

Well, facing death is very difficult. It's a difficult concept in general. But a lot of patients presume the worst so spiritual being can decrease the amount or degree of anxiety that's associated with thinking about death. It's really important just to help people talk about it and feel their feelings about it and know that there's hope in relationship and connection.

Writing prayers, writing in a journal, ritualizing helps them access a peaceful state of mind. Nature, for example, through meditation can help patients to focus their attention on the moment because I want patients to honor their experience by paying attention to it, speaking to it and finding people to share their experience as they cope with living with lung cancer.

Page last updated: March 22, 2020

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