Boston, MA—At Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, mesothelioma patients get an added measure of care: a chaplain devoted solely to those who have been diagnosed with the asbestos cancer.
The chaplain was hired several years ago by Dr. David Sugarbaker, an eminent thoracic surgeon at the Brigham, in order to help provide counseling to the mesothelioma patients. “It seemed clear to me and to other members of the surgical team that those patients who had regular visits by a chaplain…got through surgery more smoothly,” said Sugarbaker.
Mesothelioma patients may be particularly receptive to pastoral care and counseling, since their cancer is so unique – and so aggressive. Malignant mesothelioma is almost always linked to asbestos exposure, which most often happens occupationally. Veterans, shipbuilders, mechanics and construction workers are all vulnerable to asbestos exposure on the job, since the material was used so frequently throughout the 20th century as an insulation and building material. Its fireproofing and strengthening qualities made it an invaluable additive to cement wallboard, pipes and conduits, fabric and tiles. Yet these asbestos-containing materials posed a risk equal to that of fire: the risk of contracting the aggressive cancer mesothelioma. The detrimental health hazards of asbestos were not widely known, although in some cases they were known to employers and downplayed or covered up. This betrayal on the part of their employers may be one reason why patients find the assistance of a chaplain in coping with their mesothelioma diagnosis to be helpful.
Another may be the extremely aggressive and rapid progression of the disease. Because it has a long “latency period” – the time between contracting the disease and manifesting symptoms – the cancer may have advanced to a late stage by the time it is diagnosed. Sometimes patients do not receive a mesothelioma diagnosis until up to 50 years after they began employment in the asbestos-contaminated workplace. Additionally, many cases of mesothelioma are initially misdiagnosed as emphysema, bronchitis, pneumonia or even just a common cold. By the time the patient learns of his or her cancer, then, it may already be inoperable. On average, mesothelioma patients have a life expectancy of only 18 months after diagnosis. When grappling with a veritable death sentence, the counseling of a hospital chaplain may be invaluable to both the patient and their family.
Requests for chaplains from all patients at the Brigham have jumped 23 percent since 2004.