Caring for the spirit at Oasis of Hope cancer treatment center
Patients at Oasis of Hope in the 1960s through the early 2000s, would daily witness a kind old gentleman in a doctor’s coat getting out of his burgundy Ford Grand Marquis and pulling out his briefcase and guitar case out of the trunk. As aged and frail as he was, his heart-felt smile and greeting brought strength to anyone who was so fortunate to have met him. Dr. Ernesto Contreras, Sr., founder of the Oasis of Hope, had been providing his unique blend of scientific medicine and healing art to the patients at the hospital for more than 35 years.
Dr. Contreras, Sr. would see patients in his consultation office in the mornings to go over lab work and explain medical cancer treatments. In the afternoons, he would get together with all of his patients for fellowship. He would take his guitar and a joke book. Often his jokes were stale but he would laugh so hard and sincerely that everyone would join in the fun. When it came time to sing, he would pull out his songbook. When he realized he couldn’t read the small type, he would borrow glasses from the person closest to him. Often, a woman named Peggy would lend her oversized pink framed glasses to Dr. Contreras. He may not have sung like Elton John, but some of the glasses he would borrow could have come right out of Sir Elton John’s private collection!
He loved to share incredible facts such as ironic doctor’s names he came across including the pediatrician named Dr. Kidd, the radiotherapist named Dr. Burns, and the cardiologist named Dr. Hart. What was remarkable was to see smiles come across the faces of many people in the room who were facing the difficult reality of cancer.
Many of his songs were comical as well. He would take lyrics penned by his patients and sing them to the tune of popular folk songs. Imagine singing to the tune of “Deep In The Heart of Texas” words like, “The Contreras diet”, you better best try it (clap, clap, clap, clap), deep in the heart of Oasis. The enzymes too, you need a few (clap, clap, clap, clap), deep in the heart of Oasis. As he would have his patients sing along with him, more smiles would brighten and an occasional tear of relief would be shed. When a patient was discharged, he would sing his “Farewell” song to send him or her off with a blessing and love until the next time they would meet.
After jokes and songs, he would ask everyone to form a circle, hold hands and pray. He would pray in a very low and humble voice. He had a simple faith that was contagious. To close, he would prescribe 12 hugs and more tears of relief and joy would often come to the eyes of many.
This story is more than heartwarming; it is fundamental for the cancer treatment approach at Oasis of Hope. Though there were no published clinical trials on the healing importance of a patient’s spirituality when Dr. Contreras, Sr. opened Oasis of Hope in 1963, intuitively, he knew that he must address the needs of the whole person—body, mind and spirit. It was because of Dr. Contreras, Sr.’s vision of lifting a patient’s spirit that he would integrate music, laughter, prayer and hugs into his medical program. This integration of spiritual support continues to be a hallmark of the Oasis of Hope total cancer care approach – a 45-year healing legacy.
As scientists, we do not fully understand how the spirituality of a patient impacts his or her health. A number of clinical studies are beginning to skim the surface of this intriguing subject. One explanation of how the spirit of a person can impact his/her physical health could include the linear relationship between the spirit, mind and body. If there were one word to sum up this linear relationship, it would be psychoneuroendocrinology.
Imagine that a person receives a diagnosis of cancer. This person may be riddled with fear and anxiety related to death, symptoms, and treatment. If the patient had faith that God was going to help, no matter what the outcome would be, this faith would generate positive emotions of peace and maybe even joy. When these emotions were transferred from the soul of the person to the brain, the brain would send signals to the endocrine system that would then produce chemicals that could bring relief from pain and a sense of well-being to the patient.
Another patient with no faith may feel hopeless. This would generate negative emotions that would arrive to the brain. When distress signals are received by the brain, orders are fired out to the endocrine system to produce chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol to help the patient fight or flee from the perceived danger. These chemicals are helpful in short bursts but when a patient is distressed over a long period of time, the chemicals begin to depress the immune system. A depressed immune system will not help a patient heal from cancer.
The interconnection of a person’s body, mind and spirit is really not linear at all. It is more like overlapping circles. But it is easy to see how the spirit can affect the emotions that in turn stimulate a physiological response. There are many studies that confirm that a patient’s spirituality can ease psychological stress. Patients report that spirituality is an excellent way of coping (1). Patients have indicated that sharing prayer and religious expression has been effective at lowering emotional distress even when it is done through online chat rooms (2).
Because Oasis of Hope goes beyond cancer eradication to concentrate on the quality of life the patient experiences, spiritual support is emphasized. Clinical studies confirm that religious coping has a positive impact and improves the quality of life in cancer patients (3).
In one study with 27 breast cancer patients, 26 out of the 27 stated that spiritual faith could help cancer patients recuperate, citing prayer, dependence on God, and social support from the faith community as being effective (4). Another study with 84 patients concluded that helping a patient find meaning in life through spirituality had a positive impact on a patients ability to manage the emotional strain of cancer (5).
Whether a person professes a belief in God or not, everyone has spiritual needs. In cancer patients, some of the top spiritual needs include: time to think; hope; dealing with unresolved issues; preparation for death; expression of true feelings without being judged; and the opportunity to speak about important relationships (6). Such needs should not be overlooked. In most hospitals, a visit by a chaplain may happen or it may not. Some families may call a local pastor to come and visit. Usually a time of sharing followed by prayer will happen in these cases and the patient and family members often feel supported. At Oasis of Hope, spiritual support is not an optional accessory. Spiritual health and needs are acknowledged and addressed to the extent that a patient is open to the opportunities from devotions, praise and worship, and prayer times.
Clinical trials confirm the importance of faith, prayer, religious expression, and shared faith. Dr. Contreras, Sr. envisioned an Oasis of Hope with spiritual healing. Today, the spiritual support program thrives as patients become active parts in their healing and the healing of others.
A missionary who provides spiritual counseling at Oasis of Hope recounts some of his experiences:
This is a story of a woman that came to Oasis of Hope as a patient. Even before she came she recognized that she had a need to get rid of any “baggage” that she might have from her past in order for a complete healing. After a few days at Oasis of Hope, during one of the morning devotions, she burst out and talked about the hurts of her past and how they had affected her whole life and she did not know how to forgive. Our Spiritual Support Team came together and talked with her and offered comfort and prayer. It was during that time that she was able to release those hurts and feel God’s love for her in a tangible way. A year later she still attributes her healing to this moment knowing that what she would do medically would work because she has laid down that burden.
This other story tells us about a patient who came through the Oasis of Hope Program for three consecutive treatments. At the end of her treatment she was given a report of being cancer free. A report that many people hope to hear. She broke down crying and came to the spiritual team one day. She couldn’t be happy about her good report. She was sure the cancer would come back if she did not change how she felt about her husband. Our team prayed with her, so that she would let go of the things of the past.