Struggling with paradoxes: the process of spiritual development in women with cancer

M T Halstead, M Hull
Oncology Nursing Forum 2001, 28 (10): 1534-44

PURPOSE/OBJECTIVES: To examine the process of spiritual development in women diagnosed with cancer within five years of initial treatment.

DESIGN: Exploratory, qualitative.

SETTING: Outpatients in the mid-central and southwestern United States.

SAMPLE: 10 Caucasian women, ages 45-70, who completed initial treatment, were not undergoing treatment for recurrence, and were within five years of diagnosis for breast or ovarian cancer or non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

METHODS: Data collected during two semistructured interviews, coded and analyzed using grounded theory techniques. Frame of reference--symbolic interactionism.

MAIN RESEARCH VARIABLES: Developmental processes of spirituality; responses to diagnosis, treatment, and survival of cancer.

FINDINGS: Diagnosis of cancer threatened the meaning of the women's lives, resulting in a sense of disintegration. This problem was resolved through the basic social psychological process of Struggling With Paradoxes, a three-phase process of Deciphering the Meaning of Cancer for Me, Recognizing Human Limitations, and Learning to Live with Uncertainty. In phase I, the paradoxes focused on the possibility of death, distress, vulnerability, and maintaining connection. In phase II, the paradoxes involved confronting death, asking difficult questions, and letting go of ultimate control of their lives. In phase III, the paradoxes centered on uncertainty, redefining meaning, and identifying spiritual growth. Reintegration occurred over time, although when threatened by the possibility of recurrence, disintegration resurfaced for a time.

CONCLUSIONS: Findings emphasize not only the importance of spirituality, but also that spiritual experience is individualized and developmental in nature. Spiritual growth occurs over time following the diagnosis of cancer and is not necessarily related to age.

IMPLICATIONS FOR NURSING PRACTICE: Spiritual concerns may be painful for patients to address; spiritual caregiving requires an acknowledgment of need by the woman with cancer and a caring, sensitive caregiver. Nurses should be aware of the phases of spiritual development so that interventions can be designed to address individual needs that may vary over time.

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